Professor Vanessa Hayes received a Celebration of African Australians Inc Award at Parliament House on Saturday.
The awards recognised "exceptional achievements and remarkable contributions to Australia, Africa and the world through education, science, research, philanthropy, leadership and community engagement by African Australians."
Professor Hayes heads the Human Comparative Genomics Team at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research, while also holding a position as Professor of Genomic Medicine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, California.
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Hayes made Sydney and Australia home in 2003, becoming a citizen in 2006. She was recognized on Saturday for both her contributions to Africa and Australia.
Hayes made headline news in 2010 when she led the team that generated the first complete personalised human DNA sequences (human genomes) for Africa, namely South African and Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and !Gubi, a Kalahari Bushman from Namibia, and again in 2011 when she co-led a project to generate the complete genome and facial tumour genome of Australia's Tasmanian devil.
At Garvan, she will be using her understanding of the complexities of the Human Genome to drive research focused on identifying the inherited and acquired genetic events that cause prostate cancer.
Generating not only the first human genome for an Australian researcher, the information gained from the African project provided for the first time a true glimpse into the extent of human diversity within Africa. The African genomes (particularly that of Archbishop Tutu) are providing the framework for disease studies and drug development tailored for Africa.
After completing her PhD in the Netherlands in 1999, Hayes returned to South Africa to head a research team that focused on determining genetic susceptibility to HIV infection and disease progression. She became frustrated, realising that the anti-HIV drugs were completely ineffective for Africans.
"At the time there were over 5 million orphans in Southern Africa as a result of HIV. Drug development was being driven out of the United States and Europe and therefore tailored to the majority population, including a deletion within the CCR5 gene only carried by people of European ancestry. This genetic target was absent in African ancestral South Africans," said Professor Hayes.
"One of the biggest issues with not including all indigenous people in genomics is that medicines tailored towards genomic profiling only target anomalies that can be found in current databases. If there are no African genomes in the database, then Africans are excluded from drug development."
All modern humans shared a common ancestor roughly 200 thousand years ago in Africa. The closer a population resides to our early beginnings, the more diversity is carried in the DNA of that population.
To date Hayes has identified the most diverse human genomes within the Southern African Bushman (Khoesan) peoples. In contrast, Europeans and Asians show the least genomic diversity, having gone through a major 'bottleneck' (population reduction) when leaving Africa some 35,000 to 25,000 years ago.
"We found more genetic diversity between two click-speaking Bushmen, who live 500 km from each other, than between me (a red haired) and someone from China," explained Hayes.
"By sequencing the complete genomes of !Gubi and the Archbishop we were able to add 1.3 million gene variants to the databases that weren't there previously -- simply because people hadn't looked in Africa."
Hayes believes that Africa holds many secrets to understanding human disease that have not been tapped. For example the significant link to prostate cancer and aggressive prostate cancer disease observed in men of African ancestry. "Although the Archbishop has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, our current knowledge was unable to predict his disease status based on his DNA sequence," says Hayes.
Among her current projects, Professor Hayes is studying African men from rural areas with aggressive prostate cancer who, unlike Australian men, have not been impacted by western trends in prostate cancer management. She is using this unique resource as a comparative analysis to better understand both the environmental and genetic factors driving prostate cancer within Australia.