Prof Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney has won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science for his “transformative role in the scientific response to Covid-19”.
Holmes, an expert in the development of viral diseases, publicly shared the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus for the first time in January last year, publishing it on behalf of a consortium of Chinese scientists.
For nearly three decades, Holmes has studied how viruses evolve and jump between species. His research has focused on pathogens including HIV, Ebola and Zika, and his work on the emergence and origins of Covid-19 earned him recognition in 2020 as the Scientist of the Year in New South Wales.
Holmes described the recognition as a “truly humiliating experience”.
Among the other research findings honored in Wednesday’s awards were the development of biomaterials to repair wounds, decoding of mysterious signals in the distant universe, and treatments to improve the survival of breast cancer patients.
In their 22nd year, the awards are Australia’s most prestigious awards for achievements in scientific research, innovation and teaching. .
Professor Anthony Weiss, also from the University of Sydney, won the Prime Minister’s Award for Innovation, for developing biomaterials that can accelerate and improve wound healing in human tissues.
Both he and Holmes were awarded $ 250,000.
Weiss was recognized for creating a synthetic version of tropoelastin, a protein building block that gives human tissue – including the skin, arteries and lungs – its elasticity.
“Each of these small bricks is only 20 nanometers in size,” Weiss said. “We’ve learned how to assemble them into fibers and sheets and tubes.”
Tropoelastin is used in injections for localized tissue damage or as implants in larger wounds to help speed up tissue repair after injury.
The biomaterial is produced on a scale of specially programmed bacteria. “We just open the bacterial cells and our tropoelastin springs out,” Weiss said.
Weiss founded the company Elastogen in 2008 to commercialize the research. The company was sold to one of the world’s largest biopharmaceutical companies in 2018, in a deal totaling $ 334 million. – one of the largest transactions in Australia’s life science sector.
Astronomer Dr. Keith Bannister, from CSIRO, was awarded the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year.
Bannists designed a way to locate how fast radio eruptions (FRBs) – short pulses of radio waves – originate from galaxies billions of light-years away.
Bannister said it was gratifying to be recognized, stressing that the work was a “huge effort” by a team of scientists. He compared discovering an FRB to “finding a needle in a haystack the size of 50 football pitches”.
“Once we find one, we can actually reach into the telescope within half a second and do a live-action repeat [which helps locate it]said Bannister.
What exactly produces FRBs remains a mystery in modern astronomy, with some speculating that the signals from deep space may be a sign of alien life.
Bannister is skeptical of this explanation, but said the energy released by an FRB in a millisecond was similar to what the sun released in 70 years.
He encouraged young people “to think of tribal disciplines as a career, and also a way to be creative and a way to make a difference for the world”.
Prof Sherene Loi, an oncologist and researcher at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Center, took home the Frank Fenner Prize for Life Researcher of the Year.
Loi’s research led to a biomarker test for breast cancer, which is now routinely used for pathology reporting in many countries. She also helped prove that immunotherapy can prolong survival in patients with triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive type of breast cancer.