Jian Zhou Medal awarded to cancer, immunology researchers

Friday, 15 September, 2023

Jian Zhou Medal awarded to cancer, immunology researchers

The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS) has announced Professor Laura Mackay and Professor David Ziegler as the recipients of the 2023 Jian Zhou Medal, to be presented at the Academy’s annual meeting in October. AAHMS launched the award in 2020 to recognise rising stars in Australian translational health and medical science.

Mackay, who leads the Immunology theme at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, conducted a series of landmark studies a decade ago in which she found that a unique type of T cell exists in the skin, gut and other barrier tissues. She showed that these T cells are ‘first responders’, mounting a fast and effective immune response at the specific site of infection.

“It was a real shift in thinking, because for a long time people thought that the T cells they were finding in tissues were just passers-by caught up in tissues,” Mackay said.

“On comparing T cells in the blood versus T cells in tissues, we found that the genes and signals that control the survival of T cells in tissues is different, and we found that these T cells in tissues were more protective against infection and tumours.”

Today, thousands of researchers around the world are studying these tissue-resident memory T cells (TRM) cells. Mackay and her team are also developing new strategies to boost the number of TRM cells and supercharge their protective power to clear infections and diseases such as breast cancer and melanoma.

“We’re also working on the other side of the coin, where these T cells can go rogue, leading to skin autoimmune conditions such as vitiligo, alopecia and psoriasis,” she said.

Ziegler is meanwhile on a quest to improve treatment for every child with cancer, having stated that, “Children are not just little adults. Their cancers are different, and we really need the separate research and clinical trials specific for children with cancer.”

Ziegler, who is head of the neuro-oncology program at Sydney Children’s Hospital and clinical trials program at the Kids Cancer Centre, and Director of the Kids Cancer Alliance, has established the first Australian early-phase clinical trials platform to get new children’s cancer therapies into the clinic faster. He also set up Australia’s first research investigating the fatal brain stem tumour known as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG).

Ziegler leads multiple national and international clinical trials for children with DIPG and other aggressive cancers, with his most recent research having led to four clinical trials being established for DIPG — including a first-in-child study. He also co-developed the national Zero Childhood Cancer (ZERO) project to bring personalised medicine to every child with cancer; in its first six years, new treatment options have been found for more than 70% of the 1000 young patients enrolled.

“We can analyse every gene in that cancer and get a result back to clinicians within a few weeks, allowing each child to get the best diagnosis, the best prognostic information and the best treatment options,” Ziegler said. He aims to make this standard of care available to all the 1000 children diagnosed with cancer in Australia each year.

The Jian Zhou Medal is made possible by a generous donation from the Frazer Family Foundation and the medal is designed and minted by the Royal Australian Mint. Nominations for the 2024 medal will open in October this year.

Image credit: iStock.com/olegback

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