Written by Aileen Sheehy
Dr Elizabeth Murchison has made quite an impact since she first joined the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in 2009. Since her arrival on a NHMRC Australian Overseas Fellowship, she has been awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science Fellowship, a science heirloom from the Medical Research Council to honour female role models in science and has spoken about her research at the TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] conference, a non-profit event dedicated to bringing together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers.
To add to Elizabeth’s already impressive list of accomplishments, she has now been awarded with the 2012 Eppendorf Award for Young European Investigators for her ongoing research into the deadly transmissible facial cancer that is spreading among the endemic population of Tasmanian devils in Tasmania and threatening the survival of the species.
In 2010, Elizabeth was the lead researcher to create a draft genome sequence for the endangered Tasmanian devil (announced at the AMATA 2010 Conference in Hobart, Tasmania). Elizabeth’s research continued with a catalogue of the mutations present in the transmissible facial cancer endemic in the Tasmanian Devil population published in Cell (PUBMED: 22341448; PMC: 3281993; DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.11.065). This study has led to clues about where the cancer came from and how it became contagious
Since starting her research at the Sanger Institute, Elizabeth has extended her research, by looking at another transmissible cancer called Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour – a sexually transmitted cancer found in dogs. Although recovery rates are far higher in the canine cancer than in the Tasmanian devil cancer, the principles of transmission through cell transplantation are the same.
Looking at these cancers is providing Elizabeth with unique insights into what happens when a cancer can survive beyond its host. In evolutionary terms this affords Elizabeth a fascinating glimpse of the risk factors for the potential outbreak of similar diseases in other species, including humans.
With the Eppendorf Young Investigator Award which was established in 1995, Eppendorf AG honors outstanding work in biomedical research and supports young European scientists up to the age of 35. The Eppendorf Award is presented in partnership with the scientific journal Nature. The official presentation of the Award took place at the EMBL Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, May 9, 2012.
Aileen Sheehy is a member of the Media, Public Relations and Communications team at the Sanger Institute.