Scientists revealing the links between cell death and cancer win $50,000 CSL Florey Medal for lifetime achievement.
More than 30 billion cells die in every human every day. They do this through a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death – the body’s primary method of ensuring that old and damaged cells do not outstay their welcome and cause disease.
Cancer is marked by genes that trigger unrestrained cell growth. But, during the past three decades, molecular biologists Andreas Strasser and David Vaux from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, established that there was a second process in play.
The researchers identified a gene called Bcl-2, which regulates cell death. Some variants promote apoptosis, others inhibit it, and healthy life could be described as a balance between the two.
However, when something goes awry – in particular, when the inhibiting variant of Bcl-2 meets up with a growth-promoting gene called c-Myc – there can be runaway reproduction of cells that never die, resulting in aggressive cancers such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia and acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
The discovery by Vaux and Strasser that the absence of cell death played a key role in cancer development was startling and spurred a whole new field of study.
Among other insights, the pair established that the mechanisms governing cell death are present throughout the animal kingdom and therefore present valuable targets for drug development.
The clear implication of their findings was that drugs designed to kickstart the cell death process could be used to treat diseases.
One of these drugs, Venetoclax, developed by Strasser, Vaux and colleagues in association with pharmaceutical companies Genentech and AbbVie, is already in widespread use, combatting chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, the most common form diagnosed in Australia. Others are in clinical trials.
The role cell death plays in the development of disease is now considered so fundamental that, since 2011, it has been included as one of the six universally accepted “Hallmarks of Cancer”.
Professor David Vaux is deputy director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. He also holds senior positions with Monash University, La Trobe University, the University of Melbourne, and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
He undertook his PhD at the Institute, studying the Bcl-2 gene, completing it in 1989. A stint at Stanford University in the US followed, after which he returned to his alma mater. His work has not only resulted in new treatments for serious disease, but also catalysed widespread interest in the molecular biology of cell death, prompting researchers around the world to develop novel treatments for many conditions.
Professor Andreas Strasser holds the Alan W. Harris Personal Chair in Experimental Cancer Biology at the Institute and is its Division Head for Blood Cells and Blood Cancer. He is also an honorary professor at the Department of Experimental Biology of the University of Melbourne and a senior researcher for the NHMRC.
He attained his PhD at the Basel Institute for Immunology and University of Basel, in Switzerland, and moved to Melbourne in 1989.
Throughout his career, his research has focussed on the role of cell death in the immune system.