Burnet Prize tops Nick’s great year

1 December 2016

Dr Nick Huntington, photo: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) laboratory head, Dr Nick Huntington, has been awarded the Burnet Prize to top off an outstanding year for the early career researcher.

The prize was for his research and discoveries in innate immunity and immunotherapy.

Earlier in the year Nick’s team – the Huntington Lab in WEHI’s division of Molecular Immunology – made discoveries about the mechanism by which natural killer (NK) cells destroy cancer cells, which received international coverage and added to his growing reputation as an NK cell expert.

These cells occur naturally in the body and the Huntington Lab is looking for ways to activate them so they can fight an individual’s own cancer cells more efficiently.

The team was also a finalist in the UNSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research for their work in targeting innate lymphoid cells for immunotherapy and protection against infections.

In awarding the Burnet Prize, Director of WEHI, Professor Doug Hilton AO, a former winner of the prize, said “The results of studies driven by Nick have provided scientists with a new way of approaching drug targets and the development of cancer treatments”.

But it’s always the science that comes ahead of the accolades and the discovery of NK cell checkpoints provided a particular thrill.

“After 15 years of very basic research into what makes natural killer cells tick, it’s extremely exciting to think that we are now in a position to move forward and try to develop drugs to boost natural killer cells ability to destroy cancer cells,” Nick said.

Working with Dr Jai Rautela, Nick has also co-founded a Melbourne-based biotechnology company called oNKo-innate, looking to develop novel immunotherapies for cancer.

Nick is a member of the Menzies Alumni Advisory Group, which was formed this year to help advance the work of the Menzies Memorial Scholars Association, including the development of the new Menzies Alumni Community Leadership Grants.

It’s not only been the professional accolades that have come his way this year, but Nick and his wife Patricia also welcomed their first baby earlier in the year, a girl named Alison, making 2016 a pretty special year all round.

The Burnet Prize is awarded annually by WEHI and recognises early career scientists for their pioneering research. The prize was established in 1987 through a bequest of Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. The prize includes $2,000 and an engraved bronze plaque by Melbourne sculptor Michael Meszaros, who also designed the Menzies Scholarship medallions.

Photo courtesy of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute