Prestigious award for top cancer researcher  

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘24
Dr Stephin Vervoort

WEHI laboratory head Dr Stephin Vervoort has been awarded the Australian Academy of Science’s prestigious Ruth Stephens Gani Medal.

Dr Vervoort is an emerging leader in gene regulation – a regular process in our bodies that, when disrupted, can lead to cancer and other diseases.

At a glance
The Australian Academy of Science has announced WEHI laboratory head and Snow Fellow Dr Stephin Vervoort as the recipient of the Ruth Stephens Gani Medal.
Dr Vervoort’s research has resulted in significant discoveries about the fundamental ways genes are controlled, revealing how these processes go wrong and can cause cancer, and identifying potential targets for therapeutic intervention.
The Ruth Stephen Gani Medal recognises and honours research in human genetics and cytogenetics.

Understanding the driver of cancer    

Dr Vervoort’s research over the past decade has been to understand the causes and drivers of cancer growth, which could lead to new avenues for therapy.

His work focuses on a key component of gene regulation, known as RNA Polymerase II (RNAPII).

Gene regulation is like a switch that turns on or off to decide when and where your body makes RNA molecules and proteins. It is also like a volume control that adjusts how much of these products your body produces.

This process is crucial for maintaining our health, and when disrupted or deregulated, it can lead to various diseases, such as cancer. A key genetic regulator is RNAPII, the enzyme that reads genetic information contained in our DNA.

Much like a photocopier, RNAPII reads our genetic code and sends copies of it as messages to our cells in a process known as transcription. Our cells then interpret those messages and convert them into proteins.

Dr Vervoort said that when this ‘photocopier’ malfunctions, genetic mutations occur and can fuel cancer growth.

“It turns out that the molecular machinery in our cells can struggle to make faithful copies of the longest genes in our genome,” he said.

“The long genes in our DNA are particularly enriched for DNA-damage repair, so when long genes do not get made, the response can cause cancer.

“This makes the RNAPII pathway a prime candidate for the development of novel anti-cancer treatments.”

Despite the importance of gene regulation to our health, we do not currently have a full understanding of how it works.  Dr Vervoort’s innovative and multidisciplinary approach pairs analysis of our entire genetic code with computational methods to address this knowledge gap.

The importance of recognition  

Dr Vervoort’s work, which is supported by prestigious fellowships from the Snow Medical Research Foundation and CSL, has resulted in significant discoveries in how RNAPII drives gene regulation, uncovering how this occurs in cancer, and which components can be targeted by new therapies.

The Australian Academy of Science has recognised Dr Vervoort for his outstanding contributions to research in human genetics, his work in transcription regulation, genome-engineering, and bioinformatics analyses methods.

Dr Vervoort said this field perfectly combines his interest in technology and biology to gain insights into the molecular machines that operate inside our cells.

“I am driven by the desire to make an impact in the way we treat incurable cancer types and believe that we should strive to translate our findings so that they can improve patient outcomes in the long run.

“The Ruth Stephens Gani medal is an incredible recognition of our work and feels very special for someone who decided to move from the Netherlands to Australia to pursue a scientific career.

“I feel enormously grateful for everything that Australia has offered me and am proud to call this my home.”

The official award ceremony will be held on 12 September 2024.

Header image: Dr Stephin Vervoort, Snow Fellow

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First published on 03 April 2024
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘24
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