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2010 Australian Life Scientist Of The Year: Dr Benjamin Kile

June 26, 2017

The Australian Government has named Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researcher Dr Benjamin Kile 2010 Life Scientist of the Year.

The Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year is awarded annually for outstanding achievement in science that advances, or has the potential to advance, human welfare.

Dr Kile, a laboratory head in the institute's Molecular Medicine division, will be presented with the award tonight by the Hon. Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, in a ceremony at Parliament House, Canberra. The award includes a cash prize of $50,000.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said Dr Kile was one of Australia's brightest young scientific leaders and a deserving recipient of the Science Minister's prize.

"Ben has proven himself capable of producing the most innovative and internationally influential research while also acting as an outstanding mentor to students and younger scientists," Professor Hilton said. "Ben is also passionate about pursuing translation and commercialisation of his research to benefit both the healthcare of Australians and the health of the Australian economy."

Dr Kile said he was deeply honoured to receive the Science Minister's prize. "It recognises the collective efforts of an outstanding group of colleagues and collaborators here at the institute," he said

Dr Kile and his colleagues have received international recognition for research into cancer, stem cells and blood cell production. His major discoveries include research into platelets and platelet lifespan and, in 2008, identification of the normal function of the Erg gene, which is linked to many cancers.

"Everybody knew that the Erg gene was highly oncogenic (cancer-causing) - it is probably the most commonly rearranged gene in human cancer - but we didn't know what its day job was," Dr Kile said. "Our research showed that Erg is a regulator of blood stem cells, which immediately tells you something about why it's so oncogenic. Cancers acquire a lot of characteristics of stem cells, so the fact that it is switched on in tumours suddenly made sense."

In 2007, Dr Kile and his institute colleagues received international attention for identifying the molecular program that controls platelet lifespan, transforming the field and solving a 50-year-old mystery about platelet biology.

"We initially discovered that a protein called Bcl-xL is responsible for keeping platelets alive," Dr Kile said. "That led to us breaking open the whole molecular pathway. We found that it is a real yin and yang situation. On the one side you have Bcl-xL, which keeps platelets alive, and on the other you have Bak, a pro-death protein that kills them. The two are in balance in a healthy platelet, but as it circulates, Bcl-xL slowly runs out, like sand in an hourglass. When the sands runs out, Bak kills the platelet, triggering its removal from the blood."

The discovery raised the prospect of developing new drugs to prolong the shelf-life of platelets stored in blood banks, effectively increasing the availability of this life-saving product for cancer patients and others in danger of serious blood loss or clotting disorders.

"The finding also has implications for our understanding of conditions where platelets cause unwanted blood clots, such as heart disease and stroke - two of the biggest killers in Australia today," Dr Kile said.

Penny Fannin
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute