Inaugural innovation medal awarded for cancer drug discovery

11 December 2014
Key Researchers
Associate Professor Guillaume Lessene standing in a laboratory
Associate Professor Guillaume Lessene has won
the inaugural Dr John Dixon Hughes Medical
Research Innovation Medal.
Medicinal chemist Associate Professor Guillaume Lessene has won the inaugural Dr John Dixon Hughes Medical Research Innovation Medal for his discovery and development of potential anti-cancer drugs.

The medal, awarded by the National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation (NFMRI), was presented to Associate Professor Lessene at a ceremony in Sydney last night. The award includes a cash prize of $50,000 to support his research into new and improved cancer therapies.

Associate Professor Lessene has dedicated the past decade at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to discovering and developing small molecules that target the programmed cell death pathway (apoptosis) that is important in cancer development and resistance to chemotherapy.

Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death that normal cells undergo, but cancer cells resist. His work has contributed to the discovery of a new class of drugs, called BH3-mimetics, that ‘trick’ cancer cells into apoptosis.

Associate Professor Lessene said his group set out to develop novel inhibitors of the pro-survival Bcl-2 protein family, components of the apoptotic machinery that are major factors in the development of cancer, and resistance to therapy.

“Cancer cells avoid programmed death by producing high levels of one or more ‘pro-survival’ molecules, called the BCL-2 family of proteins,” he said. “Harnessing the power of small molecules to interrogate biological pathways controlling cell death will not only lead to a better understanding of cell death and its role in cancer, but also deliver new chemical leads in areas of unmet need in oncology.”

Associate Professor Lessene said he was honoured to receive the Dr John Dixon Hughes Medical Research Innovation Medal. “This medal represents the importance of collaboration within the institute, and externally, to develop potential new drugs for clinical use,” he said. “I would like to recognise my team and my collaborators, who also share in this award.”

BH3-mimetics have transformed the field of cancer therapy, and are already showing great promise for treating some blood cancers, such as chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Associate Professor Lessene is also the institute’s lead scientist in a recently established collaborative partnership between European pharmaceutical company Servier and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to facilitate the development of new agents that could be effective in treating several types of cancer, particularly blood cancers.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said Associate Professor Lessene was one of the institute’s shining stars. “The type of molecules that regulate apoptosis are not conventional drug targets, and many in the pharmacological industry considered them undruggable,” he said.

“Undeterred, Guillaume and his team have discovered pharmaceutical agents with exquisite specificity for the apoptotic machinery. His outstanding contribution to biomedicine has garnered a strong international reputation and signals his emergence as a leader in medical research and innovation.”

Dr Noel Chambers, chief executive officer of the NFMRI, said Associate Professor Lessene’s achievements demonstrated the impact and research mindset the NFMRI had set out to support. “Associate Professor Lessene is a model example of what can be achieved when a strong vision and goals are fueled with determination and supplemented by collaboration,” Dr Chambers said.

The Dr John Dixon Hughes OAM Medal for Medical Research Innovation is a biannual award offered by the NFMRI to a researcher under the age of 45 for outstanding contribution towards the development and advancement of a biomedical innovation related to the nature, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and incidence of disease and other health problems that have a significant impact on human health.

Further information:

Liz Williams
Media and Publications Manager
P: +61 428 034 089
E: williams@wehi.edu.au

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