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Prime Minister's Prizes for Science 2008 -

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Prime Minister's Prizes for Science 2008

Ian Frazer was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for Science 2008. He created four vaccines to
fight cervical cancer. Two of them-Gardasil and Cervarix-are now on the market. Both prevent
infection with the virus responsible for most cervical cancers. The other two vaccines are in
clinical trials and are designed to treat women who have already been infected.

Robyn Williams speaks to Tanya Monro and Carola Vinuesa . Tanya Monro was awarded the Malcolm
McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year. Tanya Munro's work has found new applications
for optical fibres. These include use in aircraft to detect rust, and fibres which can transmit
light to confuse missiles. Other applications are in medicine, assisting in diagnosis of viruses.

Carola Vinuesa was awarded the Science Minister's Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Carolla
Vinuesa has discovered what happens when a single letter change in the genetic code is enough to
create poor quality antibodies and trigger autoimmune diseases like lupus, juvenile diabetes and
certain cancers.


Ian Frazer: Research is very expensive, we know that. But if you think research is expensive, try

Robyn Williams: Professor Ian Frazer, winner of the Prime Minister's Prize for Science.

Ian Frazer: The general public recognise that, and they recognise that by contributing directly and
personally to scientific research.

Robyn Williams: This is The Science Show from Parliament House in Canberra. So on Thursday, the
grand event, and, as you'll hear, the Prime Minister was in a surprisingly perky mood.

Bernie Hobbs: Thank you very much, and from me as well, welcome to the 2008 Prime Minister's
Science Prizes, at the Great Hall, Parliament House, a spectacular venue for a very gala
presentation tonight. I'm Bernie Hobbs from the ABC's New Inventors and the ABC's Science Unit. And
as someone who has embarked on careers in both medical research and science teaching, I'm
absolutely rapt to be part of a celebration of excellence in both those fields tonight. And now
it's time for me to stop talking about sharing the stage with remarkable Australians and start
getting some of them up here with me. So the first of those who'd I'd like you to join me in
welcoming is the Prime Minster of Australia, Kevin Rudd.

Kevin Rudd: Can I speak now?

Bernie Hobbs: Yep.

Kevin Rudd: Good. How long?

Bernie Hobbs: Four minutes. I'd like a verb in every sentence and not too many superlatives.

Kevin Rudd: Thanks very much. And thank you also for the reference for my alma mater, Nambour State
High School, and I welcome all of those of you attending here this evening who have attended lesser
academic institutions. It was at Nambour High, by the way, I was introduced to the wonders of the
bunsen burner, the dissection of toads and the application of the bunsen burner to the dissection
of toads, and the wonders of potassium permanganate and the combination of all the above. Which is
why I ended up a graduate in Chinese poetry. How much time have I got left?

Bernie Hobbs: Three and a half. Very good so far.

Kevin Rudd: Let's go a little longer than that.

Robyn Williams: Kevin Rudd, being kept in line by Bernie Hobbs, ex-teacher. He continues with his
set speech, and then suddenly breaks away with this vivid insight.

Kevin Rudd: We also need, as a community, to work to capture the nation's imagination about
science, the wonder of science. I was speaking to those at my table before about one of my
favourite paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery. I don't know if you've seen it. It's on
the front cover of a book by a gentleman called Richard Holmes which is out in the book stores at
present about the wonder of science. It's a treatment of the likes of Joseph Banks on the one hand
and the age of natural discovery, and on the other hand a treatment also of poets from the romantic
tradition like Coleridge, and essentially the unity of the two traditional disciplines, the
sciences and the humanities, and these in fact informing one another rather than competing against
one another.

Joseph Wright's painting is of this gathering of kids and older folk around this device called an
orrery. For those of you who are astronomers in the room, you'll know what it is; essentially a
device shaped with a metal frame around it which describes the rotation of the spheres, the
rotation of the planets. But the beauty of the painting is that you have these kids looking in
wonder at this device in the semi-light of an 18th century English house in the same way as the
painters of an earlier age painted scenes of the nativity. Essentially his painting is of that very
message, that there's nothing in contradiction between the wonder of creation and the wonder of
discovery. It is a beautiful thing.

But why do I mention it here this evening? It is through the arts, through the sciences themselves,
but the way in which we actually conduct our national discourse to once again capture the nation's
imagination about the world and the wonder of science as being part of our imagination of our
nation's future.

By the way, that's not in the written text, and I'm sure my advisor would be horrified by all of
that, but anyway, that's what I've been reading of late, apart from The Wall Street Journal.

Robyn Williams: The Prime Minister referring to Richard Holmes's book The Age of Wonder. Holmes was
on In Conversation last week and in The Science Show the week before talking about Coleridge and
Whewell and the invention of the word 'scientist' in 1833.

Anyway, there were many announcements on Thursday, some about students.

Kevin Rudd: The government has already moved to address the urgent priorities facing the science
sector. The first is in teaching. Australia needs more people studying math and science, it's as
simple as that. We need more of those graduates to go back into our school classrooms and teach the
next generation, teach them maths and science and help fire their imagination. That is why the
government is investing $626 million in financial incentives to do just that. That is a big

From 1st January next year, new maths and science students will see their HECS fees slashed from
over $7,400 to less than $4,200. The message that sends to students is simple. We want you to study
maths and science, and we'll be backing you in making that choice. This is an expensive commitment,
but my colleagues and I, led by the minister, Kim Carr, and by the Deputy Prime Minister and
Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, they've read the reports, they've made us concerned, but
rather than just wring our hands we've decided to start to do something about it.

This is a down payment on the future, to say through the simple mechanism of kids looking at their
HECS fees for the future; work in these fields, study in these fields, and come and work in the
classrooms afterwards or a related field and we'll halve your HECS and do it the right way for you.
We're also cutting HECS for maths and science graduates who go into related occupations like
teaching these subjects in secondary school or becoming primary school teachers, because teaching
the next generation is a wonderful use of scientific talent.

Robyn Williams: Kevin Rudd. Apart from the big prize to Professor Ian Frazer, there were two others
for research. The Malcolm McIntosh Prize went to Professor Tanya Monro, the brilliant photonics
team leader from Adelaide, whom I grabbed just before she received her award.

Tanya Monro: My angle is trying develop optical fibres to do things you would never imagine an
optical fibre could do. We all know that you can use optical fibres to send data from point A to
point B; what I'm trying to do is use optical fibres to tell us something about the world around

Robyn Williams: What's it got to do with planes flying in the sky?

Tanya Monro: A lot of things are to do with planes flying in the sky. One nice example is we're
developing fibres that you can embed into the structures of aircraft, and then just by sending a
light signal through that fibre you can tell whether or not the structure is rusting without having
to pull it apart.

Robyn Williams: I see. And how can you protect the planes from interference by nasty terrorists?

Tanya Monro: That's another angle on using fibres for planes. We've actually recently demonstrated
some really new fibres that can be used for counter measures. So if somebody shoots a missile at
your plane, the fibres we're using can help confuse those missiles and send them astray.

Robyn Williams: How does it do that? Or can't you tell?

Tanya Monro: I can tell, the broad concepts is not problem. The new fibres we've got can transmit
mid-infrared light and it's exactly this mid-infrared light that's used to control the guidance
systems of the missiles. So what you can do, if you spot a missile you can send it a signal that
tells it 'I'm not a plane, I'm a cloud, the plane's over there'.

Robyn Williams: That's very neat. What's different about the sorts of glass you can use to conduct

Tanya Monro: Most of the fibres made so far and the ones we use today are made out of one
particular glass, silica glass. Our focus is on broadening that out to a huge range of other
glasses that can do weird and wonderful things.

Robyn Williams: How difficult is it to make those different sorts of glasses, it is very complex?

Tanya Monro: It's a real art, to some degree, and we're working very hard on making it more of a
science. I often describe it as precision cooking because what we do is we start off by mixing
together very high purity chemicals, and we develop new compositions that can change the optical

Robyn Williams: The thing that really surprises me is that later in The Science Show we've got
something from Queensland about using plastic instead of the normal glass fibre silica stuff. Does
that surprise you?

Tanya Monro: No, plastic has a key role to play in the whole photonics game. We also do work in
plastic fibres, they have a place, they can be cheaper, they can be easier to integrate. They tend
to be higher it's just a trade-off, it depends on what you're trying to do with the
fibres. Our technology of putting tiny little air holes in the fibre to change the way light
travels down the fibre works really well in plastic too.

Robyn Williams: What connection does it have (and I really find the range amazing) to diagnostics,
telling whether people have got a particular sort of disease, like HIV, for example?

Tanya Monro: Absolutely, this is one of the things I feel most passionately about in terms of
applications of our new science. Imagine that somebody comes into the doctor not feeling very well
or imagine you're going through an airport and you want to screen somebody. I'm working towards
fibres with my team where you can basically take a tiny little sample of either blood or any other
bodily fluid, and you can use the holes in this fibre to suck up this fluid and then the light
travelling through the fibre changes because of the particular biological species you're trying to
detect. And you can detect in real time, in a few seconds, whether or not that virus is present.

Robyn Williams: That's extraordinary. Is it being used now already?

Tanya Monro: It's not yet. We've done initial lab demonstrations that we can actually take one of
these fibres and stick antibodies on the internal surfaces of the fibres and then if the particular
bio-molecule you want comes along, it will bind, and you'll be able to detect it.

Robyn Williams: Isn't that amazing. And here you've got the prize, on the do you feel
about it?

Tanya Monro: I'm absolutely thrilled. It's recognition at the highest level I could have at this
stage in my career and within Australia, and I'm honoured.

Robyn Williams: Well, you're relatively young, because by definition you must be young to get the

Tanya Monro: I'm ten years out of my PhD.

Robyn Williams: That's impressive. Ten years, what's keeping you?

Tanya Monro: I'm doing my best.

Robyn Williams: Congratulations. Thank you.

Tanya Monro: Thank you very much, Robyn.

Robyn Williams: Tanya Monro from the University of Adelaide, the Malcolm McIntosh Physics Prize.
And on Wednesday she also received $1 million from the Research Council. Welcome to the A-team.

Robyn Williams: Her fondness for the tango was featured in the newspapers, but it was for life
science that Dr Carola Vinuesa was honoured on Thursday, for work on the genetics of otherwise
unreachable diseases.

Carola Vinuesa: To start with we just wanted to find any gene that could regulate diseases like
lupus and diabetes because there is very little known about that. So we did a very blind search in
mice that were developing lupus to see what genes were causing them.

Robyn Williams: And lupus is a sort of autoimmune disease, is it not?

Carola Vinuesa: It is, it's one of those diseases in which our own immune system attacks our
tissues and cells. So in the case of lupus they can attack the kidney and layers of the skin, so
these patients eventually become very sick.

Robyn Williams: And you can't go out very much.

Carola Vinuesa: No, sun exposure makes it much worse.

Robyn Williams: And hunting for that gene...or it is two genes or more that are responsible?

Carola Vinuesa: In this particular case it's not just that it was the only gene, it was that it was
only one letter change in that gene, and that means one letter change in the whole genome, which is
three billion letters, was fully responsible for causing all the symptoms that constitutes lupus.
And we also found out that this mutation predisposes people to other immune diseases like
rheumatoid arthritis and type-1 diabetes.

Robyn Williams: With the one letter change, if you say 'fist' and change one letter you have 'fish'
and of course the difference between a 'fist' and a 'fish' is quite profound. So the upshot for the
body is enormous. And you have found the site of that one-letter change?

Carola Vinuesa: Yes, we found it in a part of the genome that was fully annotated, and when we
found this letter change, the actual gene it was in was still unknown, so we actually gave a name
to the gene, we named it Roquin, and the protein that it encodes for was also unknown, it's also
called Roquin.

Robyn Williams: Why did you call it Roquin?

Carola Vinuesa: Because we call the mice San Roque, which is the patron saint of the buboes which
were these large lymph nodes that patients developed during the plague, and the first thing you see
is the mice have very large cervical lymph nodes.

Robyn Williams: Having found the origin, can you do much about it, to attack the original cause?

Carola Vinuesa: The beauty is that our subsequent work has identified how the gene works, and we
have identified that there's a particular target called ICOS that is really instrumental in
triggering disease, and that this target is regulated by small RNAs called micro-RNAs. Now that we
know a few more pieces in the puzzle we can start trying to target these individual pieces as
therapeutic targets because until now you are probably aware that there is really no treatment for
these diseases, and the only treatments are very broad, like steroids or immunosuppressants that
really dampen the whole immune system, they're like blanket treatments but do not really target a
specific part. These treatments cause very serious side effects and they're not that effective. So
the idea of just being able to target the actual pieces that go wrong brings new hope into possible

Robyn Williams: I'm sure it does. And where does the connection with 'junk DNA' come in on this?

Carola Vinuesa: We find that this gene Roquin exerts its function with the help of these micro-
RNAs. These micro-RNAs are found in areas of the genome that don't encode for proteins, and all
these areas of the genome were previously considered junk and in higher vertebrates and humans they
are very large parts of the genome. We find that these small bits of DNA encode for regulatory
RNAs, and these RNAs are critical for regulating the expression of most of the other genes in the
genome. So now they are called regulatory RNAs.

Robyn Williams: Regulatory...because otherwise having something like 95% of your genes or what
looks like your DNA having no function would be a bit absurd, won't it. Tell me, somehow I can tell
that your accent isn't quite 'Canberra'. Where does it come from?

Carola Vinuesa: I am from Spain.

Robyn Williams: How long have you been here?

Carola Vinuesa: I have been here for eight years.

Robyn Williams: Excellent, and so you're firmly established at the John Curtin?

Carola Vinuesa: I am, and I'm a group leader there. I've actually now become an Australian citizen
as well. I feel very grateful for the treatment I've had in this country.

Robyn Williams: Well, congratulations on the wonderful news.

Carola Vinuesa: Thanks a lot.

Robyn Williams: Dr Carola Vinuesa from the John Curtin School, Australian National University. And
so the Prime Minister's Prize itself, to Ian Frazer, much honoured.

Ian Frazer: It's a great honour to be chosen to receive the 2008 Prime Minister's Prize for
Science, but one of the things that brought home to me what we were doing and its importance was
another sort of honour that I was paid this evening, in a way just as important an honour. One of
the people amongst the audience here this evening came up to me and thanked me for making the
vaccine available for her children. This was particularly poignant for her because she had had
cervical cancer herself and she did not wish her children to have that. That's really what science
is all about; it's delivering something to the community that would not otherwise be available,
helping to solve a problem.

Robyn Williams: The problem of course being a vaccine against cervical cancer, now being offered to
women in Australia and many other countries around the world. But Professor Frazer from Brisbane
appreciates the need for humility.

Ian Frazer: Beside the honour bestowed tonight, I have of course had a number of other titles
bestowed on me recently. I personally like the one in The Weekend Australian, you know, the picture
of me and the story about the vaccine and the headline, 'God's gift to women'. I think it was the
vaccine they were talking about, and I've had to tell my sons that to the best of my knowledge
that's not a title they're likely to inherit from me.

But the one that probably brought me down to earth the most was a similar story about the vaccine
in Cosmopolitan magazine, again with a picture of me, and the headline there was, 'The little prick
that may save your life'. And perhaps on that note I'd better stop. Thank you very much for your

Robyn Williams: Scenes from the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science on Thursday this week.