Winner: Pellegrini and Ebert Team, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.

Time to die: killing cells to save lives

Melbourne researchers have found a new use for an anti-cancer drug. They’re using it to eliminate hepatitis B cells by telling infected cells ‘it’s time to die’ – switching off the cell’s resistance to programmed cell death that is part of a cell’s normal life cycle.

The new treatment has been developed by a team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, led by Dr Marc Pellegrini and Dr Greg Ebert.

For research into the treatment of hepatitis B, Dr Pellegrini and Dr Ebert have been awarded the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research.

“This is important work addressing one of the world’s most widespread deadly diseases,” Kim McKay AO, Executive Director and CEO of the Australian Museum said.

“There is currently no cure for hepatitis B, which infects 2 billion people and causes 780,000 deaths a year,” she said.

Previous hepatitis B treatments have encouraged immune cells to attack infected cells, but an over-active immune system carries its own health risks. Instead, by targeting a particular protein, whose job it is to inhibit programmed cell death, the new treatment selectively targets liver cells that are infected with hepatitis B, bypassing healthy cells.

If this broad approach is successful, there is the potential that it may pave the way for the development of similar treatments to tackle other major chronic infections such as HIV and tuberculosis, which kill millions of people around the world each year.

Established in 1827, the Australian Museum is the nation’s first museum and one of its foremost scientific research, educational and cultural institutions. The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence in Research and Innovation, Leadership, Science Communication and Journalism, and School Science.

The other finalist was a team comprising Professor Trevor Lithgow and Dr Hsin-Hui Shen (Monash University), Dr Denisse Leyton (Australian National University) and Dr Joel Selkrig (European Molecular Biology Laboratory). The team used biochemical and microbiology techniques to understand the function of a key molecular machine that is required by bacterial pathogens to cause disease. The molecular machine represents a novel target for the development of new therapeutics to treat infections caused by antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

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