Historic first for fellowships

Australia’s most prestigious mid-career medical research Fellowships have been awarded to three very talented early career scientists who are likely to have an enormous impact on medical research in the future.

Ryan Lister
Professor Ryan Lister

The winners of the 2014 Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation Senior Medical Research Fellowships are Professor Ryan Lister (Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and the University of Western Australia), Dr Marc Pelligrini (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) and Dr Nicolas Plachta (EMBL Australia and the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI).)

Each Fellow will receive $1.225 million ($245,000 per year for five years) to undertake leading-edge research in their area of expertise, making it the most prestigious mid-career medical research award in Australia.

The Chair of the Viertel Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board, Professor Peter Leedman said, “These outstanding researchers were selected from a very strong field of candidates from all over Australia.

“The research projects being pursued by these early career scientists cross broad themes from infectious disease and clinical trials in Hepatitis B to the earliest stages of development and capturing that in real time, as well as deciphering the detail of the genome, and in particular, the epigenome and the secrets it has for understanding and reshaping brain function.

“In recognition of the extraordinary calibre of the shortlisted candidates this year, the Trustees of the Foundation agreed to award one more Fellowship than normal this year. I thank the Trustees for supporting Australian science in this way.  This major award will make a significant contribution to their careers and research impact.”

Professor Peter Leedman, who is also the Director of the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, said that the Fellowship would allow Professor Ryan Lister to head a Laboratory at the Perkins.

Professor Lister said he hoped to provide major advances in understanding the role of the epigenome in the human brain, advancing the application of regenerative medicine, and remedying epigenetic dysfunction in disease states.

Dr Marc Pelligrini, a laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said the five-year fellowship would allow him to focus on progressing his research into chronic infections such as HIV, hepatitis B and tuberculosis.

“We have made some significant discoveries about how the microbes that cause these diseases evade the immune system and are now exploring how these discoveries could be applied to eradicate hepatitis B, HIV and tuberculosis.

“Research is a long-term proposition so having the security of the Viertel Fellowship to allow us to move our work through to clinical trials is incredibly important.”

Dr Nicolas Plachta said he was delighted to be selected by the Viertel Charitable Foundation.

“It is crucial that young researchers are given support at the start of their careers and I am thrilled that the Foundation has selected me. Their support will give me the freedom to conduct ambitious long-term research that would otherwise be very difficult to fund,” he said.

“I hope that by understanding the dynamics of how cells function in vivo will ultimately make it possible understand why embryo deformities occur – something we know very little about at present,” Professor Plachta said.

Research summaries:
Professor Ryan Lister, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research and The University of Western Australia

The epigenome is a molecular code superimposed upon the genome that controls how genes are turned on and off, without altering the underlying DNA sequence. Acting as miniscule chemical signposts added to genome to instruct the cell how to use the genetic information, the epigenome plays essential roles in controlling cell function, development, learning and memory, whilst its disruption is involved in cancer and neurological disorders. Professor Lister’s research aims to decipher the role of the epigenome in controlling stem cell activity and brain function, its disruption in neurological disorders, and to pioneer new tools to precisely edit the epigenome. This will provide major advances in understanding the role of the epigenome in the human brain, advancing the application of regenerative medicine, and remedying epigenetic dysfunction in disease states.

Dr Marc Pelligrini, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Marc Pellegrini’s laboratory focuses on understanding why some infections are not cleared from our body, but persist within cells. These are called chronic infections. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1), hepatitis B virus (HBV) and tuberculosis (TB) are three globally significant chronic infections. Together they cause more than five million deaths each year and collectively they are the leading cause of years of productive life lost in the world. New therapies that control or cure chronic infections are urgently required. Marc’s research is revealing how microbes sabotage the processes that normally eradicate infections. He has discovered several mechanisms that microbes use to avoid our defenses and he has developed several drugs that assist our bodies in killing infected cells. These discoveries have been translated to a clinical trial, commencing in late 2014 which will test a drug that that has potential to treat HBV and other chronic human infections. Marc’s goal is to discover and deliver new therapies that can promote clearance of chronic infections.

Dr Nicolas Plachta, Monash University, EMBL Australia and the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI).)

A/Prof Plachta will apply advanced live imaging technologies to reveal how cells form the early mammalian embryo. Each cell in our body must carefully choose its fate, shape, and the way it interacts with other cells, yet it is unknown how these decisions are controlled in real time in living mammalian organisms. A/Prof Plachta’s research will show how single cells activate different genetic programs and how they regulate their shapes in intact developing mouse embryos. Understanding these dynamic processes will make it possible to screen IVF embryos for deformities and explain the mechanisms behind tissue formation.

Watch a video about Professor Ryan Lister, made to coincide with his Prime Minister’s award, the 2014 Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. 
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