GSK 2022 award for outstanding Australian medical research: Nominations open!

GSK has awarded individuals or two-people research teams its Award for Research Excellence (ARE) since 1980. For the first time since the pandemic began, the GSK ARE will be presented in person at the Research Australia Awards Night, Thursday 13 October, 2022 in Melbourne.

One of the most prestigious and longstanding awards in Australian medical research, nominations for the GSK ARE close at midnight (AEST) on 15 July. Find out more about nominating on the GSK website.

Cosmos spoke with GSK’s Australian medical director, Dr Alan Paul, about the award. Dr Paul is a former clinician who has worked in the medical industry for 15 years.

“What we’re to achieve, as an organisation, for patients, particularly with an award like this,” Dr Paul says, is “to elevate the importance of science and recognise that we have some amazing researchers in this country”.

“It’s frankly very humbling to hear what they’re doing and how they’re going about it.”

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Five independent judges choose a winner. The inaugural winner in 1980 was Professor Tony Basten. Dr Paul explains that Basten’s work in cellular biology and immunotherapy “was probably very much foundational in a lot of the exciting work that we see now with immune-oncology”.

Dr Paul lists many talented researchers over the decades who have won the award, including Dr Bruce Kemp who won in 1993 for his work in protein and metabolic chemistry, and 2018 winners Professors Georgina Long and Richard Scolyer, world-renowned researchers and clinicians in melanoma.

Dr Paul says last year’s winners, Professors Jamie Cooper and Rinaldo Bellomo, are ICU physicians whose work during the COVID-19 pandemic has been critical.

“I’ve probably done a little bit of a disservice to all the other very well-recognised winners,” Dr Paul admits, “but that hopefully gives you a flavour.”

Dr Alan Paul. Image supplied: GSK.

The award has been presented to researchers “from translational right to bedside researchers who are trying to have a clinical impact”.

Dr Paul says that submissions vary from the preclinical to the clinical impact: “We want to make sure that it’s not just focused in on one element of the research continuum. That’s why we have a diverse panel to ask: what impact is that research going to have on patients?”

He adds that, in a cost-constrained environment, economic benefit is also considered.

The multinational healthcare company has increased the financial reward associated with the GSK ARE by 25% to $100,000. “Hopefully, that helps to support the work that researchers can do for a greater period of time and have a bigger impact as well,” says Dr Paul.

“There’s something in the vicinity of 80,000 fulltime researchers in Australia and they live from grant to grant. That’s a really tough environment.

“So, having this investment helps them and their team focus on the next aspect of their research.”

But, apart from the immediate financial benefit, the award has other valuable outcomes for researchers. As a prestigious, internationally recognised award, GSK ARE recipients have opportunities to develop their work in Australia and around the world. “It then acts as a bit of a platform to start seed funding, future ideas and future projects,” he says.

2020 GSK ARE recipient Professor Mark Febbraio also spoke with Cosmos.

“First and foremost, it’s an incredible honour to win the award because it’s acknowledged as Australia’s premier medical research award,” Prof Febbraio begins.

“It’s very important because I was able to use the funds to bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ between basic science and commercialising science. Now we’ve commercialised the company, and the company is up and running.”

Febbraio led a team that synthesised a protein similar to interleukin 6 (IL-6) which is produced during exercise as well as by immune cells. The new protein has the metabolic benefits of IL-6 without the inflammatory effects.

While placing emphasis on clinical research, Prof Febbraio says it is important that the GSK ARE also considers basic research which has relevance to clinical efforts. “What I really like about the award is that it really is an award for sustained research excellence and how it impacts on the medical community,” he says.

Mark Febbraio with his GSK ARE. Image supplied: GSK.

Febbraio says that modern medicine has done a lot to combat many diseases, “but we haven’t been able to fully combat complex metabolic diseases“.

There have been inroads into type II diabetes and cancer treatments, Prof Febbraio says, but there are still no cures. “Diseases like lung cancer and pancreatic cancer, brain cancer, where, you know, the prognosis is still not very good,” he says.

A main reason for this, Prof Febbraio says, is “there’s such heterogeneity in the phenotype of those diseases. So not every individual will respond to the treatments in the same way. Therefore, I think the next frontier is doing a complex phenotypical evaluation of each person and then developing personalised medicine”.

Febbraio envisages big databases and bioinformatics playing a central role in this development.

Funding is a critical challenge Dr Paul identifies for Australian medical research going forward. “A lot of our amazing research and researchers, given the pool of investment here in Australia, they’re having to go overseas,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led “the public in general to have a greater appreciation of what we do,” says Prof Febbraio. “I mean, to identify a novel virus towards the end of 2019 and have a functional vaccine 12 months later. It shows that, if there’s a collective and there’s buy in from governments, and a willingness to fund research, medical research can deliver.

“The problem is, particularly in Australia, the amount of funding for medical research is not very good.

“It’s a bit of a paradox that, that the public is really embracing medical research, but medical researchers are a little bit hamstrung by lack of funding.”

In the wake of COVID, Dr Paul says, the community and industry “see the innovation. They see the science and realise, at some point in time, that science is going to have an impact”.

“If you think right back to Tony Besten’s work, that science is having amazing impact for people living with particular cancers today. To be a little part of that journey is pretty exciting,” Dr Paul says. Febbraio concludes: “I wish luck to all the people that have been considered for the award this year. It’s an incredible honour and I look forward to hopefully being at the award ceremony when the 2022 recipient or recipients are announced.”

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