2019 CSL Florey Medal

Right now, inside your body, millions of cells are dividing to create new cells. So you don’t end up the size of a planet, every second, the body has to get rid of a million cells. So every second since the day you were born, over a million cells are gotten rid of, and the way they’re gotten rid of is by activating an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism. In the 1980s, scientists identified the first component of that mechanism: a gene called Bcl-2. So if cells have too much Bcl-2, then they lose the ability to kill themselves. That genetic error became crucial in our understanding of cancer. It had been thought that cancer was simply the result of too many cells being created, but Australian researchers David Vaux and Andreas Strasser discovered that some cancers are caused by the opposite process. If white blood cells, for example, can’t kill themselves, then they can accumulate and turn into a cancer, such as a leukemia or lymphoma. Knowing that meant we could help correct the process and, in turn, fight some cancers. A powerful new treatment for cancer was developed based on the research of Professors Strasser and Vaux. Just to discover something is an enormous thrill, because you know, as a researcher, that you’ve found something that nobody else in the world has ever seen before. 30 years on from their landmark findings on Bcl-2, the two Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science are still at the forefront of cancer research at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. So there’s never ever going to be one cure for cancer. This drug that promotes death of cancer cells is proving very powerful in the treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, but that’s only one kind of cancer. We need to do research to find cures eventually for all of the different kinds of cancer. Professors Vaux and Strasser have been jointly awarded the CSL Florey Medal for Lifetime Achievement. They say they’re thrilled to share the honour and believe it emphasises the importance of basic research.

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