We love it when CMRI scientists get fired up!

You know those powerful moments in great movies when you just want to punch the air with excitement?

Like when Neo realises he’s ‘the one’ in The Matrix  or in any Rocky film.

That’s how we feel every time we watch this speech made by Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI) Senior Research Officer Dr Scott Cohen at our 20th Anniversary Jeans for Genes Gala Dinner earlier this year.

It’s a privilege to address you on this 20th anniversary Jeans for Genes gala 2013 marks a bit of an anniversary for myself as well. November will be 10 years for me at CMRI in cancer research.

And I spent the entire 10 years working on a single molecule called telomerase.

Now before I tell you about telomerase and cancer, I’d like to just pause and take a step back and tell you another story with the aim to give perspective and perhaps inspire.

Sometimes when we want to see how far we can go, it’s useful to look back and see how far we’ve come.

So I’d like to share this photograph with you – this is the wedding photograph of my grandparents. As children their families emigrated from southern Europe to New York where they met and here they’re 17 years of age and this was in the mid-1920s. And the point I want to make of showing this photograph is that they grew up without antibiotics. Now that thought might initially sound startling to you, but in fact, that applies to the grandparents of just about everybody in this room.

So it wasn’t that long ago. Likewise, I’d be surprised if there’s anyone here that has not had a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics have changed the way we live and as Australians we should all take pride in the fact it was an Australian scientist by the name of Howard Florey who first identified the molecule that is penicillin and then developed the means to mass produce penicillin making it widely available. And for this achievement, he was rightly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Well when thinking about developing new therapies for any disease, it’s useful to look at something like antibiotics and ask, what makes them so successful. Antibiotics have two properties that really exemplify the ideal therapeutic. Antibiotics display broad scope bacteria come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, yet a single antibiotic can be effective against a broad range of bacterial infections.

Antibiotics also display excellent specificity. They target specifically the bacteria cells without harming our human cells. Now in practical terms, good specificity translates to fewer side-effects.

Well with these two concepts in mind, let us now turn our attention to cancer.

Cancer is a collective term representing well over a hundred different diseases accounting for our many different organ and tissue types. So there lies the potential and the need for broad scope. What about specificity – well here’s where most current therapies fall short. They do not discriminate well between the cancer cells and our normal healthy cells and that leads to serious side-effects that really limit the effectiveness of many therapies.

So it’s a reasonable question to ask then, can we develop a therapy that displays broad scope and superior specificity and fewer side-effects than what we have today?

Well, maybe.

And this brings us to this molecule telomerase, which is considered a promising target for cancer.

Almost 90 per cent of all human cancers representing virtually every different organ and tissue type has telomerase. The cancer cells depend on telomerase for their immortality – the ability of cancer cells to rapidly divide without limit.

So with respect to cancer telomerase displays broad scope.

Well what about specificity?

Well it turns out, as a healthy individual, most of our cells do not have telomerase and the few cells that do have telomerase have much lower amounts than do cancer cells where telomerase tends to run wild and out of control.

So there’s a lot of hope that new therapies targeting telomerase will indeed display greater specificity and hence fewer side-effects than current therapies.

Now, as I mentioned, 2013 marks 10 years for me at the CMRI working on telomerase, so it’s a good occasion to look back and see how far we’ve come.

Well in 2003 telomerase had already been well established by several labs internationally as a promising target for cancer.

Yet, at the time, no one knew what telomerase really was. In other words, at the molecular level what is the molecular makeup of this thing we call telomerase. Well that’s where things stood in 2003 and that’s when the journey began.

Well, I’m proud to say that in 2007 at CMRI we determined the molecular composition of telomerase.

And building on that, we can now produce telomerase in the laboratory, obtain it in pure form and carry out biological and biochemical experiments that 10 years ago we could only dream about.

And just recently, just a few months ago, we were able to obtain the first glimpse of individual telomerase molecules.

The next milestone in our journey is going to be to obtain a different picture for telomerase – a picture that reveals the position of every single atom in the molecule and with such powerful knowledge at hand, we can then begin to rationally custom design small molecules that will block telomerase and these will then be evaluated for their effectiveness against cancer.

So there’s still a long journey ahead, but I’m proud about how far we’ve come.

Now when I share this with family or friends, some of them will reply, “Well Scott, that sounds well and good, but are you sure it’s going to work?”

Well look, I’m going to be honest with you here – this is still scientific research, and some level of uncertainty is inherent in scientific research.

But, I have enough confidence in the ability of our telomerase research to change the way cancer is treated in the future that I’ve already spent 10 years of my career and I’m fired up for the next 10.

And it might even take another 10 after that.

You see this is why you are so important. You see, thinking about your research in 10 year increments far exceeds the time frame of a typical competitive government research grant.

Now of course competitive government grants are absolutely crucial and CMRI scientists compete very well, nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that the competitive grant schemes as they’re currently structured do not necessarily foster that long-term, high-risk, high-impact kind of research.

Research that brings about fundamental change to our scientific understanding – research that brings about real, tangible change to human medicine.

Well, for 20 years now the Jeans for Genes campaign has been giving CMRI scientists that stability, that security to look far beyond the next grant.

Simply put, Jeans for Genes leads directly to bigger and better science.

So on behalf of all the scientists at CMRI I’d like to thank you for your support and I would like to leave you with a challenge.

And that challenge is simply to stay with Jeans for Genes into the future and by doing so you will be actively sharing in our successes that lie ahead.

And who knows, perhaps I’ll be invited to speak again at maybe the 30th or 40th anniversary Jeans for Genes gala and together we can all once again look back  and see just how far we’ve come.

– Senior Research Officer Dr Scott Cohen.

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