Garvan Breakthrough December 2019


Welcome from our Executive Director

Gene map of the retina Garvan scientists have led the development of the world’s most detailed gene map of the human retina, providing new insights which will help future research to prevent and treat blindness. The retina, a thin layer of cells at the back of the eye that enables us to see, was mapped as part of the Human Cell Atlas Project. A global project, the Human Cell Atlas aims to create reference maps of all human cells to better understand, diagnose and treat disease. The study, co-led by Associate Professor Joseph Powell, Head of the Garvan-Weizmann Centre for Cellular Genomics, employed cutting-edge cellular genomics technologies to examine the complex genetic outputs of more than 20,000 cells in order to develop a profile of all major cell types in the retina and the genes they ‘express’ to function normally. As a result, researchers can begin to understand the genetic signals that cause retinal cells to stop functioning, leading to vision loss and blindness. The insights that researchers worldwide can gain from this gene map present an entirely new way to approach the treatment and prevention of eye disease. A big picture microscopic event Every time a human cell divides, it has to copy its entire genome accurately – a two-metre, six million letter long instruction manual, through a process called DNA replication. The process requires thousands of proteins to work in sync to carry out specialised steps and accuracy is key, as errors in the copy can lead to diseases such as cancer. To make better sense of the complex process of DNA replication, Garvan’s Professor Sean O’Donoghue and his colleagues have illustrated the process in an entirely new way – a step-by-step roadmap of how a cell copies its DNA. Incorporating the findings from over 280 scientific articles published on the molecular events involved in DNA replication, an interactive graphic marks out, in clockwise sequence, the key events that control how DNA is copied inside a cell. This roadmap offers researchers an easily understandable glance at the key proteins involved at different stages of the process and, with a single click, allows them to drill down to find out further details, providing a unique perspective that gives researchers a fresh view of existing knowledge. Read more at:

Dear Garvan family,

It’s my pleasure to share with you the final edition of Breakthrough magazine for 2019.

We’ve had a successful and productive year at the Garvan Institute. Driven in large part by your generosity, our researchers continue to discover the unknown in health and disease through high impact research findings. In this edition you’ll learn about a study, led by Garvan’s Professor Katherine Samaras, to assess whether we can help prevent the rapid decline of dementia using a common type 2 diabetes treatment called ‘metformin’. You’ll also find a new discovery from our pancreatic cancer researchers. Led by Associate Professor Paul Timpson, the team have shown how targeting the tissue around pancreatic cancer, in addition to the tumour itself, could not only hold the key to stopping the spread of the disease but also improve the results of chemotherapy. We’re running even more free public seminars throughout 2020, as well as regular behind-the-scenes tours of the Institute (page 10). We’d love to see as many of you as possible at our seminars and tours. So please register to attend with your friends, family and community groups. If you’re unable to join us in person, our seminars can be viewed on Finally, I’d like to offer my sincerest thanks for the support you’ve provided our research this year. Our incredible researchers simply couldn’t investigate better ways to diagnose, treat and ultimately, prevent, diseases without your generosity.

Wishing you all the best for the holiday season.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Chris Goodnow FAA FRS Executive Director The Bill and Patricia Ritchie Foundation Chair

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2 Breakthrough

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