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Stem cell researcher wins Centenary Institute prize October 25, 2011

Posted by The Raise Project in Award Winners.
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MARIE-Liesse Asselin-Labat’s scientific potential was evident early in life. “When I was a child and eating dinner, I’d be thinking about how the digestive system would be working,” she says.

That fascination with the complex systems of the human body led to a career in molecular and cellular biology and yesterday Dr Asselin-Labat’s considerable achievements were rewarded with the $25,000 inaugural Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize.

At 34, she was one of three finalists for the prize, offered by the Centenary Institute Medical Research Foundation in recognition of outstanding creativity in biomedical research by young scientists.

“An award like this helps build confidence in young researchers,” she says. “I also believe it offers great opportunities to share how the world of research works with the business community.”

Dr Asselin-Labat is a group leader in the Stem Cells and Cancer division of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, which she left her native France to join in 2004. Her husband was equally keen to come and the pair have since had two children.

“We came to Australia because it is a beautiful country and also the quality of the science,” she says. “The WEHI was enormously attractive. It has a 100 years of history in basic scientific discoveries that have changed the world.

“It has Nobel laureates and some of the greats in modern medical research and it just keeps getting better.”

Dr Asselin-Labat was part of the institute team that discovered the breast stem cell and studied its role in the progression of breast cancer.

In January she established a new laboratory to apply what has been learnt about breast cancer to another well known killer, lung cancer. Her lab is studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying lung development and lung cancer formation.

A lot of work to remains to be done on the origins of and triggers for lung cancer, she says. Part of the challenge is isolating and characterising normal lung stem cells, then identifying tumour-initiating cells within the lung.

She estimates that arriving at this understanding and coming up with more effective treatments for lung cancer will keep her busy for the next 10 to 20 years.

Dr Asselin-Labat was a L’Oreal Australia For Women in Science Fellow in 2010 and a delegate to the Women in Science and Engineering Summit in Canberra this year. Last year she won the institute’s Burnet Prize for exceptional achievement by early-career researchers.

The other Lawrence Creative Prize finalists were Garvan Institute of Medical Research geneticist Greg Neely and WEHI’s Marc Pellegrini, whose research focuses on promoting immunity to clear chronic overwhelming infection.

“The scientific judging panel has been astounded at the quality of the applications,” Centenary Institute executive director, Professor Mathew Vadas said. “Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat is a worthy winner of the inaugural prize.”

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