Recognising Our World-Class Medical Researchers

The prestigious 2017 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research has honoured the outstanding work and revolutionary advances of four talented health and medical researchers in the early stages of their careers.

Minister for Health Jill Hennessy presented the awards last night, which are now in their 23rd year.

Ms Emma Nolan, the recipient of the 2017 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research was recognised for her research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne. Ms Nolan has now started a post-doctoral position at the new Francis Crick Institute in London.

Ms Nolan’s research analysed breast tissue donated by women with a faulty BRCA1 gene, and was able to pinpoint ‘culprit cells’ that are likely responsible for breast tumours.

These findings will lead to new ways to prevent and treat breast cancer in women carrying a faulty BRC1 gene.

Also receiving commendations were Dr Katherine Gibney from Monash University, Dr Calum Roberts from the Royal Women’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne and Dr Amy Winship from the Hudson Institute of Medical Research and Monash University.

The Awards are a joint initiative of the Victorian Government and the Australian Society for Medical Research. Recipients were selected by a panel of eminent health and medical researchers.

The Healthier Lives, Stronger Economy: Victoria’s Health and Medical Research Strategy 2016-2020 outlines our key priorities over four years to support new and evolving fields of world class medical research.

We are supporting the strategy with an additional $20 million to ensure Victoria stays a world leader in ground-breaking health and medical research, by quickly translating breakthroughs in health and medical research into clinical practice.

This is the first time in 10 years that a health and medical research strategy has been developed for Victoria.

Quotes attributable to Minister for Health Jill Hennessy

“Victoria is home to some of the best and brightest medical minds who are leading the world in discoveries that are saving lives and improving patient care.”

“Congratulations to Ms Emma Nolan and her ground-breaking work that is giving new hope for women diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Quote attributable to Parliamentary Secretary for Medical Research Frank McGuire 

“We’re continuing to drive medical research here in Victoria – whether it’s by building first-class facilities, investing in world-first clinical trials or attracting global investment and creating jobs.”

Research abstracts of recipient and commendees of the 2017 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research

Ms Emma Nolan – Recipient – Identifying novel strategies for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer in BRCA1-mutation carriers

Women who inherit a faulty BRCA1 gene have a high lifetime risk of developing an aggressive

form of breast cancer, and as a result often undergo a mastectomy to minimise their risk.

Ms Emma Nolan’s research at The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne, analysed breast tissue donated by women with a faulty BRCA1 gene, and was able to pinpoint ‘culprit cells’ that are likely responsible for breast tumours. Ms Nolan’s research demonstrated ‘culprit’ cells had a protein on their surface called RANK, which means they can be targeted using an existing medication (a RANK inhibitor) used in the clinic to treat osteoporosis. She discovered that this inhibitor was able to shut down the growth of these culprit cells, and significantly delayed tumour development in mice carrying a faulty BRCA1 gene.

These findings, currently being confirmed in a clinical trial, suggest that the RANK inhibitor could delay or prevent breast cancer arising in these high-risk women, and therefore be used as an alternative to breast removal surgery. This would have a significant impact on the lives of both present and future generations of BRCA1 mutation carriers.

Ms Nolan’s findings gives great promise of new ways to prevent and treat breast cancer in women carrying a faulty BRCA1 gene.

Dr Katherine Gibney – Commendee – Surveillance and burden of infectious diseases in Australia

Infectious diseases continue to be a significant burden causing illness in Australia and worldwide. Dr Katherine Gibney’s research at Monash University  reviewed 21 years of data from Australia’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS), which includes information about laboratory-diagnosed cases of 65 infectious diseases in Australia.

Dr Gibney found that NNDSS data from 1991-2011 reveal some diseases (e.g. measles) became less common through immunisation. Other diseases (e.g., chlamydia infection, influenza, pertussis) became more common, partly through improved diagnostic tests and increased testing. Indigenous Australians and residents of remote and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged areas were shown to have higher disease rates. Additional sources provide data on disease severity, including hospitalisations and deaths.

These results are being used to prioritise diseases for public health intervention, have been incorporated into a draft revision of the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines, and have changed the way certain data (e.g. Indigenous status of notified cases) are ascertained by public health departments. Dr Gibney’s findings will help to protect Australians from infectious diseases that are common, severe, or that disproportionately affect vulnerable communities.

Dr Calum Roberts – Commendee – Nasal High Flow as Primary Respiratory Support for Preterm Infants (The HIPSTER Trial)

Every year in Australia, more than 7000 babies born prematurely require breathing support. Dr Calum Roberts’ research at the Royal Women’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne examined High Flow, an increasingly popular type of breathing support for use in premature babies.

High Flow is preferred by parents because it is easy to use, and is more comfortable and less likely to damage skin around the nose. For babies currently being treated with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), High Flow had not been adequately studied as an alternative. CPAP is effective, but has some disadvantages: it is bulky, requires highly trained nurses to use effectively, and can damage the skin around the nose.

Dr Roberts’ research (the HIPSTER Trial) compared High Flow with CPAP. The research identified which group of premature babies requiring early breathing support could safely receive High Flow and benefit from its advantages, and which group should still receive early treatment with CPAP (those who are more premature, or have more severe lung disease). Dr Roberts’ findings have furthered our understanding of early breathing support for premature babies.

Dr Amy Winship – Commendee – The role of glycoprotein – 130 cytokines in female reproduction and reproductive cancer

Dr Amy Winship’s research at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research and Monash University examined the effects of a small signalling protein, IL-11 on abnormal placental and cancer cell growth in the womb.

Dr Winship’s work demonstrated for the first time that high levels of IL-11 cause a serious pregnancy complication called preeclampsia. She found that IL-11 can be measured in maternal blood to develop a diagnostic test for early detection on preeclampsia and improve pregnancy outcomes for these women. Dr Winship’s developed a new pre-clinical model of preeclampsia, which is currently being utilised by a research group and others around the world to test an urgently-needed treatment.

Dr Winship’s work also proved that high levels of IL-11 cause uterine cancer growth, and that by blocking IL-11 there is evidence for efficacy of a novel non-chemo-/radio-therapy and non-hormonal treatment for uterine cancer. Dr Winship’s findings have led to preclinical studies in the Embryo Implantation at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research, advancing fertility-preserving therapeutic research for women undergoing cancer treatment into clinical trials.

Further research is now underway to develop a diagnostic test for preeclampsia and to investigate the potential of blocking IL-11 to treat preeclampsia during pregnancy. This research has great promise in leading a new fertility-preserving treatment for pregnancy disorders and cancer.