Vital cellular research wins Gottschalk Medal

09 March 2022
Key Researchers
Laboratory Head
WEHI’s Dr Alisa Glukhova has been awarded the Australian Academy of Science’s 2022 Gottschalk Medal for research that explores how cells function and respond to threats in order to find improved treatments for a range of conditions, including heart and nerve diseases.
Dr Alisa Glukhova has received the Gottschalk

Dr Glukhova heads a structural biology laboratory that aims to understand how the body functions at the most detailed molecular level. She has spent almost a decade researching G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs help to transmit important information into cells, enabling them to respond appropriately to any environmental changes.

Her research, conducted in collaboration with Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), could lead to these receptors being used as therapeutic targets for tackling human disease.

The Gottschalk Medal, named in honour of biochemist and institute alumnus Dr Alfred Gottschalk FAA, recognises outstanding early-career scientists who are spearheading significant research in the medical sciences.

At a glance

  • WEHI’s Dr Alisa Glukhova has won the 2022 Gottschalk Medal awarded by the Australian Academy of Science.
  • Dr Glukhova has been recognised for research into how proteins called GPCRs help cells understand crucial information required for the body to function. This work, that also involves researchers from MIPS, could help pinpoint therapeutic targets for conditions such as heart disease.
  • The Gottschalk Medal recognises emerging leaders of Australian medical science in honour of the late Professor A Gottschalk FAA who was a former WEHI researcher.

World-first insight

GPCRs help to regulate a range of functions in the body, making them critical to modern medicine. Dr Glukhova is focused on a specific group of GPCRs called the A1 adenosine receptor that responds to a small molecule released when cells get damaged.

Collaborating with researchers from MIPS, Dr Glukhova provided a world-first structure showing the activation mechanism of the A1 adenosine receptor, which could be used as a drug target to improve treatments for a range of human diseases.

Dr Glukhova said the structure helped to reveal a new binding site that had been overlooked by researchers for years. “Finally, we could see exactly how the receptor worked,” she said.

“While adenosine receptors are known potential drug targets for conditions like heart disease and inflammation, it is difficult to target them selectively because they are spread throughout the body.

The structural information my team has uncovered will lay the foundation for researchers to identify better molecules to target these receptors for future therapeutic applications.”

Dr Glukhova said the findings would not have been possible without enhanced imaging technology.

“Leveraging facilities from overseas, the Monash Ramaciotti Centre for Cryo-Electron Microscopy and the new custom-built cryo-EM facility jointly funded by WEHI and Bio21 Institute, we were able to visualise tiny molecules – some as small as 10 nanometres. This allowed us to capture and stitch together a complete picture of the A1 adenosine receptor.”

Dr Glukhova said she was now working to understand the structural basis of the ‘Wnt signalling pathway’ involving a different GPCR family.

“This pathway is a major target for cancer therapeutics. I plan to use structural biology to explore the basic biological processes that can go awry in this pathway. Ultimately, this is knowledge that could be used to develop treatments to prevent cancer development, progression, and metastasis (spread),” she said.

Outstanding contributions

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton AO congratulated Dr Glukhova on being one of 20 researchers from around Australia who received an Australian Academy of Science award today.

“Alisa is a passionate advocate for basic research who has made major discoveries about how cells communicate with one another. She is committed to understanding how vital components of cells work, with the goal of finding better treatments for patients in Australia and all over the world. She is a creative, passionate and inspiring scientist who thoroughly deserves this recognition.”

Dr Glukhova said she was honoured to receive the esteemed medal.

“Looking at previous recipients, I felt a sense of awe that I could recognise almost every name because they are prominent and incredibly successful members of the scientific community. This medal gives me hope that one day my scientific achievements can measure up to theirs.”

Previous winners of the Gottschalk Medal from the institute include Dr Peter Czabotar (2015), Professor Ben Kile (2013), Professor Gabrielle Belz (2008), Professor David Vaux (2000), Professor Doug Hilton (1998), Professor Alan Cowman (1993), Professor Nick Nicola (1986) and Professor Tony Burgess (1981).

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