An internationally renowned genomic researcher who published breakthrough discoveries about cell development in top international journal Science today, has returned to his home town of Perth after 20 years.
Professor Alistair Forrest
Professor Alistair Forrest has joined the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to continue his important work in Systems Biology and Genomics with a renewed focus on cancer.
Professor Forrest's publication in Science followed years of work at the Japanese research organisation RIKEN coordinating over 250 scientific collaborators from 20 countries in the Japan-based FANTOM5 project, which made major strides toward resolving an outstanding mystery in biology.
"All humans start from a single fertilised egg which divides repeatedly and eventually forms all the cells that make up our bodies. During this process different sets of genes are switched on or off to run different programs in each of the 200 or so cell types that make up our bodies," Professor Forrest explained.
"What has been studied in this work is how your cells switch from one cell type or program to another. It’s amazing what can be achieved through large scale collaborative research."
The consortium showed that when cells undergo changes such as differentiation into specialised cell types, the initial activation happens at DNA regions called enhancers, a type of regulatory “switch” which are typically located far from the genes that they activate.
The research, which examined a variety of cellular changes, showed that activation of enhancers triggers the coordinated waves of change that end up dramatically changing the phenotypes of the cells.
In particular, enhancers are activated in the first 15 minutes after stimuli, and then activate a specific type of regulatory gene (transcription factors) at 30-100 minutes, which in turn have the ability of activating other genes over time, forming a cascade of changes.
Professor Forrest was born in Western Australia and was recently recruited to the Perkins thanks to funds raised in the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer as well as a Senior Cancer Fellowship from the Cancer Research Trust.
He has started the new Systems Biology and Genomics laboratory at the Perkins and aims to apply new genomic and bioinformatic approaches to studying basic biology and cancer.
"It's great to be back in WA after 20 years away. There is this critical mass forming for medical genomic science in Perth and it’s an exciting time,” Professor Forrest said.
Professor Forrest was welcomed by Perkins Director Professor Leedman, who said that cancer research was a major focus for the Institute and he looked forward to exciting new developments from Professor Forrest’s laboratory.
Other Australian based authors in the Science paper were Professor Peter Klinken (WA's chief Scientist) and Dr Louise Winteringham from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research; Professor Ernst Wolvetang and Associate Professor Christine Wells at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (UQ) and Dr Timo Lassmann at the Telethon Kids Institute.
The FANTOM5 project also included collaboration with international experts in bioinformatics, genomics, immunology, obesity and stem cell biology from around the world.
Today's publication is another important milestone for the FANTOM consortium, which in March 2014 used CAGE technology to build almost complete atlases of the promoters and enhancers in our genomes.