Wellcome funds ‘outstanding’ cancer research at Sussex

Professor Laurence Pearl

Pioneering work at the University of Sussex into molecular structure and disease has been awarded just over £2.5m in funding as part of the Wellcome Trust's inaugural Investigator Awards, made to some of the "brightest minds in science" and announced today (Thursday 2 June 2011).

The £56 million worth of awards, to fund exceptional researchers working in the fields of medicine and related sciences, are intended to ensure that science is addressing some of the most important questions about health and disease.

Laurence Pearl, who heads the University's School of Life Sciences and is Professor of Structural Biology in the Genome Damage and Stability Centre, has been given one of just 20 Senior Investigators awards, to study the protein molecule Hsp90, which is believed to play a key role in cancer as well as viral and parasitic infections.

Hsp90 plays a key role in stabilising the regulatory systems that control our cells. Fundamental scientific study of the structure of this protein, which is hijacked by cancers and by viruses, can lead directly to the development of new drugs that block these diseases. Earlier work by Professor Pearl and his team has already led to development of drugs that are currently in clinical trial against a range of cancers.

This model of basic research feeding the development of new therapeutic approaches to diseases like cancer is the guiding philosophy of the internationally outstanding research in the University's Genome Damage and Stability Centre and is the primary motivation for the exciting initiative in Drug Discovery in which the University is making a substantial investment.

Professor Pearl says: "This award gives me and my research team the time and resources to ask the central and technically challenging questions that will lead to a real understanding of how the Hsp90 system actually works. The long-term funding will help me sustain an effective and integrated laboratory,  and provide the intellectual and financial flexibility to develop new approaches and take scientific risks."

University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Farthing says: "This is absolutely marvellous news. What a wonderful example of academic leadership in the school and University."

Another seven awards are being made to new investigators. Other recipients include Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Liverpool universities.

The researchers will be looking at ambitious and diverse research topics from using stem cells to help the body mend itself to looking at how physical activity during pregnancy affects a child's health in later life and understanding the underlying neurobiology of conditions such as epilepsy.

Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, says: "The Wellcome Trust Investigators, together with our existing Fellowship holders, represent some of the very brightest minds in biomedical science. They are seeking answers to challenging research questions that could potentially transform our understanding of the mechanisms of health and disease.  

"We are demonstrating our confidence in these outstanding individuals by providing longer-term, flexible funding; in return, we expect that they will make significant advances in knowledge in their field and act as ambassadors within the research community, helping us achieve our aim of improving human and animal health."

Prospective Investigators were interviewed by expert panels led by Professor Deborah Smith, Head of the Biology Department at the University of York, and Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society.

Wellcome Trust Investigators will help the Trust tackle its five major challenges, as set out in its Strategic Plan: maximising the health benefits of genetics and genomics; understanding the brain; combating infectious disease; investigating development, ageing and chronic disease; and connecting environment, nutrition and health.

Notes for Editors

For more information about the Wellcome Trust Investigators Awards, please contact Craig Brierley, Senior Media Officer, The Wellcome Trust T: 020 7611 7329 E: c.brierley@wellcome.ac.uk

Professor Laurence Pearl will be researching Mechanisms of client protein activation and regulation by the Hsp90 molecular chaperone system.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. www.wellcome.ac.uk

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

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Last updated: Thursday, 2 June 2011