When cells forget how to die – a hallmark of cancer

Andreas Strasser and David Vaux win $50,000 CSL Florey Medal for lifetime achievement for identifying cell death triggers and using them to fight cancer.

Full profile and photos available at: www.scienceinpublic.com.au/floreymedal

Award presentation: 8.30pm (Canberra time), 27 November in the Great Hall, Parliament House

Past CSL Florey Medallists include Graeme Clark, Ian Frazer, and Nobel Laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

In 1988, two Melbourne scientists, Andreas Strasser and David Vaux, discovered the genetic triggers that cause billions of cells in each of us to die every day. They showed that some cancers cells can bypass the trigger and ‘forget to die’. Their findings led to powerful new treatments for leukaemia and opened a new field of research which generates 25,000 papers every year.

Professors Strasser and Vaux, both of Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, have been awarded the biennial CSL Florey Medal, presented by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS).

The two scientists provided the first insights into the molecular mechanism for cell death, and the first evidence that the failure of this mechanism can lead to cancer and autoimmune disease.

The research revealed that cancer genes don’t just trigger runaway cell growth; some of them also stop the body’s normal process of programming cells to die, known as apoptosis. Avoidance of cell death is now recognised as one of the six universally accepted “Hallmarks of Cancer”.

David Vaux is deputy director of the Institute, and Andreas Strasser is the Division Head for Blood Cells and Blood Cancer. Much of their research has centred on the discovery of a gene called Bcl-2, which can stop the normal cell dying process. After identifying it, their respective teams worked on blocking its activity. The results led to potent new treatments that are now in use against two types of leukaemia.

David Vaux says he is honoured to be the joint recipient of the award, which is named in honour of Australian Nobel laureate, the late Sir Howard Florey who brought penicillin to the clinic.

“I’m proud to share this honour with Andreas,” he says. “And there is still so much more to do. We have potential new leukaemia treatments that target the Bcl-2 gene undergoing clinical trials at the moment.”

Andreas Strasser agrees. “Although our research into cell death and cancer has been underway for decades, it remains for me a vital and exciting field,” he says.

CSL Chief Scientific Officer Professor Andrew Cuthbertson adds that the research has global ramifications.

“Their discoveries are the basis for literally thousands of journal papers every year,” he says. “It’s true to say that there isn’t an oncology researcher anywhere in the world who isn’t aware of their work.”

AIPS director Peter McMahon accords the research in the highest degree of importance in the field.

“The ‘Hallmarks of Cancer’ constitute a global research framework,” he says. “Andreas Strasser and David Vaux have played a major role in building this framework and AIPS are very pleased be able to acknowledge this achievement with the support of CSL”

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