Cancer researchers elected to health and medical sciences academy

Cancer researchers elected to health and medical sciences academy

26 October 2021

Three researchers smiling at camera
Professors Jerry Adams, Suzanne Cory and David
Huang (L-R)

WEHI researchers Professor Jerry Adams, Professor Suzanne Cory AC and Professor David Huang have been elected as Fellows of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS).

The honour recognises the three researchers’ career contributions to molecular and cell biology and to cancer research, including revealing key molecules that control whether cells live or die. Importantly, their discoveries on regulation of cell death have laid the foundation for development of a new class of anti-cancer agents that is now advancing the treatment of certain blood cell cancers.

At a glance

  • Professors Jerry Adams, Suzanne Cory and David Huang have been elected to the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences.
  • The appointments reflect the three researchers’ individual contributions to research into apoptotic cell death, in particular for revealing how impaired cell death contributes to cancer development and resistance to therapy, and how new medicines targeting the cell death machinery can better treat cancer.

An immense impact on research

WEHI’s director, Professor Doug Hilton AO, said the three researchers had made an immense impact on medical research over many decades.

“From discoveries abour the fundamental biology of cells and cancer biology, through to playing key roles in the development of a new class of anti-cancer medicines, Jerry, Suzanne and David have overseen an impressive research portfolio,” he said.

“Beyond that, at WEHI they have, collectively, mentored scores of researchers who have themselves gone on to make important contributions to medical research. All three held significant leadership roles within WEHI, including Suzanne’s 13 years as director. Suzanne has also made important wider contributions to Australian medical research as President of the Australian Academy of Sciences.”

Insights into cancer

Professor Adams and Professor Cory were pioneers of the application of molecular biology to solve questions in medical research in Australia, establishing these technologies at WEHI in the 1970s and making seminal discoveries about how immune B cells produce antibodies. This research led to the groundbreaking discovery of how a specific chromosome rearrangement drives the development of Burkitt’s lymphomas, a cancer of B cells. Laboratory models developed through this research are still used around the world to study lymphoma development and treatment.

Understanding cell death

Professor Adams’ and Professor Cory’s research interests into how lymphoma develops led to the discovery in the late 1980s, in collaboration with Professor David Vaux AO, that a newly discovered cancer gene, BCL-2, prevents the apoptotic death of cells – and that high levels of this protein support the growth of cancer cells. Subsequent research by a team assembled by Professor Adams and Professor Cory – including Professor Huang – uncovered many of the molecular details of how apoptotic cell death is controlled by a suite of ‘pro-survival’ and ‘pro-apoptosis’ proteins related to BCL-2.

Professor Huang led research focussed on the interactions between the pro-survival and pro-apoptotic proteins, revealing that inhibiting pro-survival proteins could be a potential new approach to treating cancer. This led to a collaboration between the WEHI consortium and international industry partners which resulted in the development of a new class of medicines, the ‘BH3-mimetic’ drugs that inhibit pro-survival proteins like BCL-2, and clinical trials at hospitals in Melbourne played an important role in the clinical use of BH3-mimetic drugs as promising new anti-cancer agents.

In receiving the award, Professors Adams, Cory and Huang acknowledge the essential contributions of their many talented research collaborators, and the critical funding they have received from government and philanthropic sources.

Super Content: 
Animation still image

This two-part animation from WEHI.TV explains the type of programmed cell death called apoptosis, and how the anti-cancer drug venetoclax works by forcing susceptible cells into this process.

Four researchers smiling at camera

The discovery and development of breakthrough anti-cancer drug venetoclax has seen four senior scientists from the Institute win the 2019 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

Professor Andrew Roberts in the lab

Professor Andrew Roberts discusses the results of a clinical trial of a potential new anti-cancer agent on ABC Radio.

Suzanne Cory speaking from a lectern

As director of the Institute (1996-2009) Professor Suzanne Cory energetically promoted science policy and research at both the national and international level. 

Two researchers smiling at the camera

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