Friday, 18 October 2019 10:49

Anti-cancer drug wins scientists PM's innovation award

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Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene, Associate Professor Peter Czabotar and Professor Andrew Roberts of the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Professor David Huang, Professor Guillaume Lessene, Associate Professor Peter Czabotar and Professor Andrew Roberts of the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Supplied

Four scientists from the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research have won the Prime Minister's Prize for Innovation, one of the seven awards given each year as part of the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science.

Professor David Huang, Professor Andrew Roberts, Professor Guillaume Lessene and Associate Professor Peter Czabotar were recognised for their roles in inventing and developing venetoclax, an effective breakthrough anti-cancer drug.

The Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year went to Associate Professor Laura Mackay of the University of Melbourne, for identifying new immune cells that provide critical immune protection against infection and cancer.

Earlier theory has held that immune memory was exclusively controlled by elements found in blood, but Associate Professor Mackay found that T-cells can also sit in tissues of the body, such as the gut and skin, and are instrumental in pathogen control.

Associate Professor Elizabeth New of the University of Sydney won the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year for her pioneer work in developing new chemical imaging tools to observe the chemistry of healthy and diseased cells.

Different types of fluorescent sensors have been developed as an outcome of her research, enabling the observation of how cells cycle and change through events and over time.

These imaging tools have unveiled the critical role that copper plays in metabolic processes, provided new insights into cisplatin-based anti-cancer drugs and also aided the study of oxidative stress in cells.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Science went to Emeritus Professor Cheryl Praeger of the University of Western Australia, for 40 years of research in mathematics, including fundamental contributions to group theory, permutation groups and combinatorics.

Professor Praeger’s algorithms have been used in computer algebraic systems that are utilised in research and teaching. Her research into symmetry in graphical models has had far-reaching applications, including enabling search engines to retrieve information efficiently from the Web.

Dr Luke Campbell, of Nura Operations, Victoria, won the Prize for New Innovators. He was recognised for having invented and commercialised nuraphone, headphones that learn and adapt to an individual's specific hearing characteristics.

Once the adaptation process has occurred, the headphones improve hearing in a similar manner to the way prescription glasses improve eyesight. The nuraphone has developed an extraordinary following in the world music industry.

Sarah Finney, Stirling East Primary School, South Australia, was recognised for raising student interest in science and increasing participation in South Australia's Oliphant Science Awards from 16 to 63 students and awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools.

She was said to have made significant contributions within the school, region and state to strengthen the curriculum.

The Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools went to Dr Samantha Moyle, Brighton Secondary School, South Australia, for being a role model to her students.

Dr Moyle was the lead teacher in the Think Big Special Interest Program for integrated learning in STEM at Brighton.

The seven prize winners shared a total of $750,000 in prize money.

Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel was full of praise for the breadth of scientific endeavour recognised by the awards.

“The S in STEM is science – but it’s often impossible to disentangle new scientific breakthroughs from the T, E and M that make them possible,” Dr Finkel said.

“Where would our new anti-cancer drugs be, without the rigorous scientific trials to prove their effectiveness? How do you program self-adapting headphones to improve your hearing, without technology and engineering to make them tangible? Or the complex mathematics of group theory, central to secure banking, digital signatures and secure internet communication.”

“From the development of breakthrough molecular imaging tools, and the discovery of new immune cells: the winners of this year’s Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science showcase the multidisciplinary nature of science today.”

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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