Past GSK award recipient reveals diverse career path and gaps in medical research sector ahead of 2021 awards

Health Industry Hub | December 8, 2021 |
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Medical: The GSK Australia Award for Research Excellence (ARE) is one of the most prestigious and long-standing awards available to the Australian medical research community in the past 40 years.

In the lead up to the 2021 GSK ARE announcement this week, Professor Mark Febbraio, the 2020 GSK ARE recipient and a Senior Principal Research Fellow and Investigator of the NHMRC and Head of the Cellular and Molecular Metabolism Laboratory, Drug Discovery Program at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Monash University, talked to Health Industry Hub about his intriguing and unconventional scientific career, how the future of medical research will evolve in the next 5 years and his advice to young scientists starting out in their career.

Health Industry Hub: As a triathlete turned scientist, what is your inspiration behind this career change?

Professor Mark Febbraio: I didn’t take the conventional scientific career path. During the Japan Iron Man in 1990, I suffered from significant heat stress and I didn’t perform to the expectations that I had anticipated. While I was ill, I came to the realisation that I wasn’t a very good athlete. So, I decided to pursue my PhD on the impact of heat stress on metabolism because I wanted to learn more about what happened to me. That was my motivation for turning from an athlete to an academic and medical researcher.

Health Industry Hub: Who has influenced you most as a researcher?

Professor Mark Febbraio: Although so many people have influenced me as a researcher, the person that’s had the biggest influence on my career is my collaborator in Copenhagen, Professor Bente Klarlund Pedersen. We met in the late 1990s and forged this collaboration based on our complimentary skills where I contribute on the basics of scientific discovery and work on translational research with her as she’s the clinical scientist.

Health Industry Hub: Which scientific achievement are you most proud of in your career so far?

Professor Mark Febbraio: The discovery that a muscle is an endocrine organ and that it can release a protein known as interleukin-6 to modify muscle behaviour during exercise. We know that exercise has beneficial effects on longevity, but we don’t exactly know all the mechanisms. One of the mechanisms is that proteins and other molecules are released from a contracting muscle and have a role in modifying biology and other tissues.

More recently in 2019, we engineered IC7Fc, a cytokine for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, that selectively activates beneficial metabolic pathways systemically and in metabolic tissues without promoting an inflammatory response. IC7Fc is the first drug candidate that may directly improve muscle function and also have multiple beneficial metabolic effects in people with type 2 diabetes. This novel cytokine was created on the basis of a deep understanding of immunometabolism, and it may be therapeutically beneficial in promoting body-weight loss and improving exercise capacity in people with type 2 diabetes.

We are working towards founding a new biotech company, which is a collaboration between Monash University and a venture capital company in New York, and we intend to take this discovery all the way to the clinic.

Health Industry Hub: What are the key lessons you have learned on your scientific journey and what advice would you give to a young scientist starting out in their career?

Professor Mark Febbraio: Never give up. Life wasn’t always great as a scientist. Every scientist has high and low periods where things don’t work out or where you don’t get funding. So, you really have to try and stay positive, and be the best scientist you can be. I always say to those that I mentor that I rather they be an A grade person and a B grade scientist than vice versa. Always be a good person, treat everybody with respect and recognise that science is a collaborative venture.

I stick to good values and try and be a role model to people I mentor. I’m also proud of the gender and ethnic diversity in my lab.

Health Industry Hub: How do you see the future of medical research evolve in the next 5 years?

Professor Mark Febbraio: The next five years in Australia is not looking very good when it comes to medical research. It’s ironic that in the last two years we’ve been so reliant on science and medical research to overcome this global pandemic, yet the amount of funding and the amount of support for universities has been at an all-time low. The morale amongst academia and medical researchers is really low at the moment.

My daughter completed an honours degree in medical research and when we spoke about whether should she do a PhD or try and get in to medical school, I advised her of the latter because it’s just a very tenuous time in Australia with little money invested into R&D.

We need to make governments understand that funding research in Australia is not philanthropy and it’s not a donation. It’s an investment because economically there is data to support this. We need a collective to lobby for more research dollars but equally engage the community. The general population is not aware of the scientific and research achievements driving new therapies for treatments like diabetes and cancer. It’s our job to increase the outreach. Tasuku Honjo and James Allison won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of checkpoint inhibitors yet the community would not be aware of this significant outcome.

In the next five (5) years, I see medical research evolving where it’s far more collaborative because we can’t work in silos anymore. Prolonged funding for centers of excellence with the best scientists should be established which includes diversity across different disciplines, career stages and gender. The level of sophistication needed to do basic research in the big data and artificial intelligence (AI) era requires greater collaborative across many stakeholders including industry and international leaders.

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