WEHI scientists receive two of Vic's most respected awards

19 August, 2008

Professor Peter Colman has won Victoria’s most coveted science award, the Victoria Prize, and Dr Ian Majewski has been awarded a prestigious Victoria Fellowship.

Both prizes were presented by the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC, during a celebratory event at Government House on 13 August 2008.

Professor Colman, who is head of WEHI’s Structural Biology Division, is one of the world’s most eminent biomolecular scientists. In the late 1980s, he had a leading role at CSIRO in the discovery of the drug Zanamivir (Relenza), the first anti-influenza medicine of its type. The drug was developed by the Australian company, Biota, together with Glaxo (now GSK) and quickly led to the discovery of similar agents, most notably Tamiflu (Roche). Relenza and Tamiflu are stockpiled by health authorities around the world in preparation for managing prospective influenza pandemics.

In more recent years, Professor Colman’s drug discovery team at WEHI has made substantial advances in other fields, especially in defining potential drug targets for the development of new cancer therapeutics. As a mark of international confidence in further progress, WEHI recently announced a collaborative research program in cancer therapeutics with US-based companies Genentech and Abbott.

The $50,000 Victoria Prize for Professor Colman is generously complemented by the $100,000 Anne & Eric Smorgon Memorial Award to the hosting institution, WEHI, from the Jack & Robert Smorgon Families Foundation.

Reflecting on Professor Colman’s award, the Director of WEHI, Professor Suzanne Cory, said, “Colman pioneered the field of structure-based drug design. It is a great privilege to have him leading WEHI’s structural biology and medicinal chemistry program.”

She went on warmly to thank the Smorgon families for their insightful and generous support. “Grants such as these help research organisations provide the cutting-edge technologies that enable great science to flourish.”

Dr Ian Majewski is one of six young Victorian scientists to win Victoria Fellowships, which were established by the Victorian state government to recognise emerging leaders in science, engineering and technology. Each Fellow receives a travel grant valued at $18,000 to undertake a short-term international study mission, to receive specialist training or to develop commercial ideas.

Dr Majewski is particularly interested in pursuing “next generation” gene sequencing technologies to more readily identify genetic mutations that contribute to cancer development. These advanced technologies may be used to predict which people are at high risk of developing cancer; and, as a further step, to develop individualised therapeutics for cancer patients. Dr Majewski plans to visit some of the most advanced gene sequencing centres overseas, including Washington University in the United States and the Genome Institute of Singapore. Upon his return, Dr Majewski will work in collaboration with Melbourne biotechnology company Murigen to develop new therapies for leukaemia.

Upon receiving news of Dr Majewski’s Fellowship, Professor Suzanne Cory said, “Majewski’s impressive talent and drive ensure him a bright future in biomedical research.”