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Insights into cancer earn Premier's Award Commendation

WEHI's Dr Priscilla Kelly has been honoured with a Commendation in this year's Premier's Award for Medical Research. Dr Kelly is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and was previously a PhD student in WEHI's Molecular Genetics of Cancer Division. Premier John Brumby presented Priscilla with the Commendation at a ceremony at Government House on 4 June. Dr Kelly's research has focused on two key aspects of cancer biology. First, identifying the genes that enable cells that are becoming cancerous to survive; and second, examining the role of rare stem cells in sustaining the uncontrolled growth of malignant tumours.

The first of her discoveries involves "apoptosis", the biological process by which cells destroy themselves when they are old, damaged or no longer needed. Unfortunately, if this healthy process of cell death is disrupted, the cells that escape self-destruction can instead live on, multiply and form tumours. Dr Kelly discovered that Bcl-x, a protein that inhibits apoptosis, is essential for cancer formation. She unexpectedly found that inactivation of the Bcl-x gene prevented lymphoma development in tumour-prone mice. This finding indicated that cells becoming cancerous use Bcl-x to avoid apoptosis and thereby to extend their lifespan. This discovery has important implications for understanding how cancers develop. It also suggests that prospective new drugs that target Bcl-x could be effective in killing tumour cells.

In other notable work, Dr Kelly showed that in several types of leukaemia the frequency of cells sustaining tumour growth is very high. This discovery runs counter to the widely held belief that tumours are sustained only by a rare sub-population of their cells, called "cancer stem cells." Her finding indicates that effective cancer therapy requires the destruction not only of that rare sub-population but indeed of all the leukaemic cells. This discovery underlines the need to develop cancer therapies that destroy all the cell types within a tumour.

Reflecting on the significance of Dr Kelly's research and her Premier's Award Commendation, the Director of WEHI, Professor Suzanne Cory, said, "We are delighted by the recognition of these intriguing findings by Priscilla Kelly and her WEHI colleagues. Their contributions to understanding how cancers arise and are maintained should eventually help to guide the development of better cancer therapies."


Contact: Brad Allan
Research Australia

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