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Aust scientists discover new medical visualisation method

04 September, 2007

John Brumby, has announced that scientists from WEHI have now visualised how a “molecular switch” that regulates the life span of normal cells and cancer cells can be flipped.

The visualised molecular switch regulates the normal and healthy process of cell death, whereby cells that are damaged or no longer needed are induced to self-destruct.

Unfortunately, the cell death switch can be hijacked in a virus-affected cell or a cancer cell, preventing the rogue cell from dying on cue. The dangerous cells can then accumulate within the body and cause a disease such as cancer.

Brumby said, “The new Australian Synchrotron – a ‘giant microscope’ at Clayton – has now allowed this critical molecular switch to be visualised. Seeing precisely how the switch is made and flipped is an important milestone on the long journey to anti-cancer drug development. For the first time, researchers have seen how this key protein involved in cancer is inactivated by its molecular switch. The search for new drugs that can flip such switches to kill cancer cells is underway in Melbourne and in drug companies around the world.

Innovation Minister, Gavin Jennings, also congratulated the WEHI team on their groundbreaking insight.

“The WEHI team had the theory and the Synchrotron enabled them to actually see the molecules and learn how they work,” said Jennings. “In time, important cancer therapies may well be developed from the WEHI team’s insight and the proof provided by the Australian Synchrotron. This is a tremendous example of what is being achieved in Victoria by our world class scientists using our own world class scientific infrastructure - the Australian Synchrotron. “It’s an illustration of how Victoria’s commitment to, and investment in, infrastructure can enable breakthroughs that may ultimately help millions of cancer sufferers in Victoria and around the world.”

The WEHI team involved in the synchrotron investigation and subsequent visualisation includes, from the WEHI Structural Biology Division, Professor Peter Colman, Dr Marc Kvansakul, Dr Brian Smith and Dr Mike Lawrence.

The Victorian Government contributed $157.2 million to fully fund the cost of the synchrotron machine and building, and has invested over $265 million in cancer research programs and in infrastructure supporting cancer research since 2000.