In recognition of her influential contributions to the field of epigenetics, Professor Susan Clark, Genomics & Epigenetics Research Theme Leader at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, has been awarded the 2019 NSW Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Medical Biological Sciences (Cell and molecular, medical, veterinary and genetics). The Prize was presented at a distinguished award ceremony held at Government House, Sydney.
The prize is presented annually to a researcher in the medical biological sciences whose research has made a ‘significant contribution to addressing a real-world challenge’.
A Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and Senior Principal Research Scientist of the NHMRC, Professor Clark is a pioneer in the field of epigenetics – the research of the additional layer of instructions on DNA that organises and regulates gene activity.
Professor Clark has helped revolutionise the understanding of how epigenetics influences early development and diseases such as cancer, and has made seminal contributions to a field whose implications are only just beginning to be realised.
Reflecting on three decades of leading epigenetics research, Professor Clark says, “We’re still only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how DNA is normally read and interpreted during early development, however we do know that epigenetic changes to DNA are unique to each cell type. More recently we discovered that epigenetic patterns are also altered in many diseases, including cancer, where they can change gene regulation to result in cancer cells growing out of control.”
“It may well take another lifetime of scientists before we fully understand epigenetic regulation. The legacy I want to leave is to share my passion for epigenetics research and to see the amazing individuals that I’ve mentored to continue making new in roads in gene regulation in cancer and other diseases.”
A passion for DNA
Professor Clark graduated in 1982 with a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Adelaide, where she first became interested in gene regulation in humans.
“At the time, we knew little more about DNA other than it formed a double helix structure, but there was speculation that a chemical modification to DNA called methylation (a form of epigenetics) could potentially play a role in regulating which genes were active or repressed,” she says. “I became interested in exploring this compelling and novel concept, but at the time, the technology to detect methylation patterns in DNA wasn’t there.”
Following her PhD, Professor Clark joined the biotechnology industry, where she led studies on the first recombinant vaccine developed in Australia. After a career break to raise her children,
Professor Clark returned to research in the early 1990s and pioneered the technologies allowing researchers to study epigenetics, including the development of bisulphite methylation sequencing, which she and her team published in 1994 and which has been cited over 2,000 times, revolutionising the field of epigenetic research.
In 1997, her research also demonstrated for the first time how the promoter of a critical tumour suppressor gene, called the retinoblastoma gene, was methylated and switched off in retinoblastoma tumours. This discovery kick-started the new field of cancer epigenetics in which Professor Clark has established herself as a world-leading expert.
She has led the Epigenetics Research lab at Garvan since 2004, where her focus is to understand the mechanisms underpinning epigenetic reprogramming in cancer, and where she has implemented new experimental protocols to generate cell-type specific road maps of DNA epigenetic modifications to identify changes that drive different disease states.
“Sue is a true pioneer – she is renowned globally for her contributions to advancing the field of epigenetics and her work has been critical to understanding and developing new treatments for cancer,” says Garvan Executive Director Professor Chris Goodnow.
“Her leadership and foresight has established epigenetics as a key focus for the Institute, and has grown a worldwide network of emerging researchers and collaborators in the field.”
From discovery to translation
Professor Clark is today the Genomics & Epigenetics Research Theme Director at the Garvan Institute, where she developed and implemented new genome-wide sequencing and bioinformatic protocols to map epigenetic changes to DNA, including DNA methylation, histone modification, nucleosome positioning, 3D-nuclear architecture and regulatory RNA profiles.
Her teams ongoing research, which has wide implications for epigenetic therapy, also has revealed new DNA methylation biomarkers for prostate and breast cancer detection, monitoring and prognosis.
The NSW Premier’s Prize adds to Professor Clark’s extensive recognition for the innovation and impact of her work.
She has received a number of awards including the RPAH Research Medal (2002) and the Julian Wells Medal for “outstanding contribution to gene action and genome structure” (2003). Prof Clark was awarded the German “Biochemisch Analytik Preis” for her outstanding contributions to methylation analysis in 2004; the 2015 NSW Cancer Institute Rob Sutherland “Make a Difference” Award and the Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundation 2017 Medal of Excellence in Biomedical Research.
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