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Fellowship winners make cancer their focus

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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IMAGE: Dr. Marnie Blewitt (left) and Dr. Clare Scott have been awarded the inaugural Dyson Fellowship and Cory Fellowship, respectively. The five-year fellowships were established last year by the Walter and... view more

Credit: Cameron Wells, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Two outstanding female scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have been awarded research fellowships worth AU$1.75 million (US$1.5 million) to continue their cancer research.

The inaugural five-year Cory Fellowship, sponsored by the institute, has been awarded to Dr Clare Scott and the inaugural five-year Dyson Fellowship, sponsored by the Dyson Bequest, has been awarded to Dr Marnie Blewitt.

At a ceremony on 25 February, Nobel Prize winner for medicine Professor Elizabeth Blackburn announced Dr Scott and Dr Blewitt as the successful fellowship recipients.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said Clare and Marnie were worthy fellowship recipients, being stellar examples of researchers who were making important scientific discoveries and had the ability and drive to lead a research team.

"The Cory and Dyson Fellowships have made it possible for Marnie and Clare to spend more of the next five years concentrating on their science and less on applying annually for research funding," Professor Hilton said. "They are both outstanding research scientists and their appointments go some way to redressing the imbalance that exists in Australian science where there is a gross under-representation of women at senior levels."

The Cory Fellowship, named after Professor Suzanne Cory, the institute's first female director, was established last year by the institute to encourage outstanding female scientists to take up leadership positions in medical research. It is a five-year fellowship open to Australian women wanting their first opportunity to lead a laboratory at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Cory Fellow Dr Scott, who became a laboratory head at the institute on 1 January and is also a medical oncologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, is trying to identify the genes and biological pathways that stop the body from efficiently killing lymphoma and cancer cells, including breast and ovarian cancer cells.

"Many new cancer drugs designed to target the biology of the cancer in question cause cancer cells to stop growing but do not kill them well enough, allowing the tumours to recur," Dr Scott said. "I hope to harness the built-in killing machinery that exists within cells to improve outcomes for cancer patients."

Dr Scott has a particular interest in ovarian cancer and, through the fellowship, will design a program of epithelial ovarian cancer research that will be undertaken over the next five years.

Dyson Fellow Dr Blewitt, who also became a laboratory head at the institute on 1 January, studies epigenetics, a relatively new field of research that seeks to reveal how a cell knows which of its genes should be active at any given time.

Mr John Dyson, who co-manages the Dyson Bequest with Ms Rose Gilder, said the Dyson Fellowship was awarded to Dr Blewitt because of the enormous potential for her research to overhaul our understanding of the human genome.

"When we heard about the ideas Marnie was pursuing in epigenetics we were excited by their potential," Mr Dyson said. "This is research that could help explain how cancer develops in some people and could ultimately lead to the development of new treatments. If our support goes some way towards Marnie reaching that goal then it is money well spent."

Dr Blewitt said the Dyson Fellowship would allow her to finish establishing a viral shRNA (short hairpin RNA) library that she will use to identify new epigenetic modifiers in the mammalian genome.

"Epigenetics refers to the modifications or the 'tags' that are present on the DNA and which help to tell cells when to switch something on and use it, and when to turn something off," Dr Blewitt said.

"One thing that happens in cancer is genes that control cell growth are switched on such that too much of the protein that promotes cell growth is produced, and the cells keep multiplying and don't die, which can lead to a tumour.

"Sometimes that over-production of protein is due to epigenetics; the normal gene is still there but the epigenetic modifications have changed and so the gene is on or off when it shouldn't be. If we find some epigenetic modifiers that have a role in cancer that information could help develop new treatments for cancer."

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About Clare Scott

Clare Scott is a clinician scientist. She has a medical degree from the University of Melbourne and was awarded a PhD in medical biology in 2000, also by the University of Melbourne.

Dr Scott leads a laboratory that operates across the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's Molecular Genetics of Cancer and Stem Cells and Cancer divisions; she is also a medical oncologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Dr Scott's clinical focus is on ovarian cancer although her research focus has been leukaemia and other blood cancers. She is a leader in Australian clinical trials of novel parp inhibitor therapy in ovarian cancer and is responsible for the design of a new program of epithelial ovarian cancer research to be undertaken in the institute's Stem Cells and Cancer Division over the next five years.

About Marnie Blewitt

Marnie Blewitt is a geneticist who was awarded her PhD in molecular and microbial biosciences by the University of Sydney in 2004.

Dr Blewitt leads a laboratory in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute's Molecular Medicine division and focuses her research on epigenetics.

She has identified some of the genes that are involved in inactivating the X chromosome and has developed a method of screening for epigenetic modifiers in mice.

In 2009 Dr Blewitt was awarded the Australian Academy of Science's Ruth Stephens Gani Medal, for human genetics.

About the Cory Fellowship

The five-year Cory Fellowship was established in 2009 by Professor Doug Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, to encourage outstanding female scientists to take up leadership positions in medical research. It is awarded to women who are looking for their first opportunity to lead a research laboratory at the institute.

It is named after Professor Suzanne Cory, director of the institute from 1996-2009, and acknowledges her achievements in scientific leadership and research.

The Cory fellowship brings to four the number of Leadership Fellowships offered by the institute. The fellowships are named after some of the institute's most distinguished scientists: Professor Sir Gustav Nossal, Professor Donald Metcalf, Professor Jacques Miller and Professor Suzanne Cory.

About the Dyson Fellowship

The Dyson Fellowship was established in 2010 following a distribution to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute from the Dyson Bequest. The five-year fellowship is awarded to a scientist about to take up an institute position as a laboratory head.

The Dyson Bequest was established by Jane and Bruce Dyson in 2000 and is managed by Bruce's nephew, John Dyson, and Jane's daughter, Rose Gilder.

Historically, the bequest has supported a range of Victorian charities, including those focusing on disadvantaged children, mental health, medical research, hospitals, the environment and people with special needs.

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