WEHI researchers awarded $3m in esteemed fellowships  

30 April 2024
Key Researchers
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Associate Professor Michael Lazarou (L) Professor Ethan Goddard-Borge (R)

WEHI researchers Associate Professor Michael Lazarou and Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger have been awarded Rebecca L. Cooper Fellowships, advancing their groundbreaking work in Parkinson’s disease and chronic respiratory diseases. 

The highly competitive five-year fellowships, worth $1.5 million each, support mid-career researchers to further their work and become future leaders of Australian medical research. 

At a glance
The Rebecca L. Cooper Fellowship supports mid-career researchers with $1.5 million in funding to become future leaders of Australian medical research. 
Associate Professor Michael Lazarou has received a fellowship to support his work pursuing future treatments for Parkinson’s disease.
Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger’s fellowship will help his team better understand the mechanisms behind chronic respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Understanding ‘molecular recycling’

Assoc Prof Lazarou is one of the world’s leading authorities on how mitophagy, the molecular process of removing or recycling damaged mitochondria, is involved in Parkinson’s disease.  

Mitochondria are the energy generating machines in our bodies. Mitophagy helps keep a healthy population of mitochondria by degrading those that have become damaged or dysfunctional. 

When the mitophagy process becomes defective it can cause disease, including neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s disease.  

“During my undergraduate studies I learned how mitochondria produce the energy for life on earth. From that point on I’ve always been driven to find out how to fix them when they get damaged,” said Assoc Prof Lazarou. 

 PINK1 and Parkin are two proteins vital to the process of mitophagy, responsible for ‘tagging’ malfunctioning mitochondria for destruction. In Parkinson’s disease, mutations in these proteins can result in the accumulation of damaged mitochondria in the brain, which can lead to motor symptoms such as tremors, stiffness and difficulty with movement. 

 The fellowship will support Assoc Prof Lazarou’s team to continue their research into defining the mechanisms of PINK1 and Parkin in mitophagy, and boost their activity as a possible therapy for Parkinson’s disease. 

 “Philanthropy and foundations play such a fundamental role in our Parkinson’s research. They have allowed me to establish my lab at WEHI and help support staff and students,” he said.  

 “Funding like that provided by the Rebecca L. Cooper Fellowship allows us the stability and certainty to chase new and interesting findings that come from big ideas – and that is often when breakthroughs happen.” 

Clearing the airways

Chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide. COPD alone affects more than 250 million people, causing 3 million deaths each year – the third-leading global cause of death.

People with these diseases typically produce an excessive amount of thick mucus in their lungs which obstructs their airways, making it difficult to breathe.

While mucus-thinning drugs exist, their efficacy is poor for many patients so finding better drug targets is one of the key areas of focus for Prof Goddard-Borger and his team at WEHI.

“To address the substantial harms that chronic respiratory diseases can cause, my lab is building a better understanding of the mechanisms driving the thickening of pulmonary mucus in disease states, and determining how to identify patients that are most at risk of developing airway obstructions,” he said.

The work will be achieved in part by assessing samples from patients with unique tools that Prof Goddard-Borger’s team has developed, and correlating this with clinical data. They will also work closely with people with lived experience of chronic respiratory conditions and advocacy groups.

Prof Goddard-Borger said that the support from the Rebecca L. Cooper Foundation will allow his team to spend more time on research, empowering them to chase ambitious, potentially life-changing findings.

“While chronic respiratory conditions have a massive impact, investment into them remains comparatively low when compared with other diseases, like cancer,” he said.

“One of the things I respect most about the Rebecca L. Cooper Foundation is their commitment to funding discovery and translational research that is focused on understanding the mechanisms underpinning diseases that are not as widely funded.

“Investments like these compound over time, and can have a real benefit for future generations.”

Header image: Associate Professor Michael Lazarou (L) and Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger (R)

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