Oncologist lands top award for glioma research


By Geir O'Rourke

6 Sep 2023

Leading neuro-oncologist Professor David Ziegler has been recognised as a “rising star” in the field with the prestigious Jian Zhou Medial from the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences.

Also honoured was University of Melbourne researcher Professor Laura Mackay, known for the discovery of tissue-resident memory T cells (TRM cells).

Named in honour of Professor Jian Zhou, who coinvented the cervical cancer vaccine with Professor Ian Frazer, the medal is awarded annually by the academy for impact in translational medical research.

Professor Frazer, the chair of the medal selection committee, said both award recipients were breaking significant new ground.

“Through his work with patients, in the lab, and in research leadership, Professor Ziegler is transforming children’s cancer treatment,” Professor Frazer said.

He added: “Professor Mackay’s discovery of Tissue-Resident Memory T cells illustrates the importance of fundamental research in advancing medicine.”

Professor Ziegler’s achievements

Announcing the accolade this week, the academy noted Professor Ziegler’s clinical trials of treatment for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), as well as his work driving the development of the national Zero Childhood Cancer (ZERO) project.

In its first six years, new treatment options had been found for more than 70% of the 1000 young patients enrolled, it said.

Professor Ziegler said: “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.”

He said he aimed to make this standard of care available to all the 1000 children diagnosed with cancer in Australia each year.

His most recent research had led to four clinical trials being established for DIPG, including a first-in-child study, the citation noted.

“In 10 years’ time I’d like to be out of a job,” he said.

“I’d like to know that we’re really reaching at 100% cure rate, that there will be no child at diagnosis who is told we don’t have any treatment option.”

Professor Ziegler works at UNSW, the Children’s Cancer Research Institute, and the Kid’s Cancer Centre at Sydney Children’s Hospital.

Professor Laura Mackay’s achievements

Professor Mackay, who last year became the youngest Fellow ever elected to the academy, is Professor of Immunology at the University of Melbourne and a laboratory head at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

The award citation said that in a series of landmark studies, Professor Mackay set T cell research on its head, identifying TRM cells, which exist in the skin, gut and other barrier tissues and describing their role in immune response.

Today, thousands of researchers around the world were building on her work and studying TRM cells, while she and her team were now developing new strategies to boost their number and harness their protective power in cancer therapy.

Professor Mackay said: “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.”

“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.”

“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.”

AAHMS launched the Jian Zhou Medal in 2020 to recognise rising stars in Australian health and medical science. The award is made possible by a generous donation from the Frazer Family Foundation and the medal is designed and minted by the Royal Australian Mint.

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