Giving life to medical breakthroughs

Thanks to the vision and generosity of a single donor – Mrs Pamela Galli AO – three distinguished medical specialists from three distinct fields of medical research at the University of Melbourne are harnessing the power of collaboration to share knowledge, push boundaries and save lives.

Ten years ago, the prognosis for patients diagnosed with melanoma was bleak. Life expectancy was, on average, just nine months. These days, more than 50 per cent of patients are cured with successful treatment.

It is progress that simply would not have been possible without significant and sustained investment in the talent and technology that is so vital to making transformative discoveries.

Driving this work forward is Professor Grant McArthur, the Lorenzo Galli Chair in Melanoma and Skin Cancers at the University of Melbourne, and Senior Consultant Medical Oncologist, Cancer Medicine at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Using new computational technologies, Professor McArthur and his team, in collaboration with researchers at WEHI (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research), are solving longstanding mysteries of cancer biology at the single-cell level, and revealing how the immune system can be harnessed to fight cancer. These radical advances are yielding life-changing results.

“Going from average survival rates of just nine months to more than 50 per cent of people being cured in the space of a decade is just remarkable,” said Professor McArthur.

Conducting medical research that yields meaningful scientific advances to profoundly change how we view, think of and tackle chronic and debilitating diseases has always been a slow-burn, high-stakes profession.

Those with the audacity to tackle such hugely complex problems require significant amounts of persistence, patience, prowess, and no small measure of capital.

Enter the philanthropy of Mrs Pamela Galli AO, whose tireless advocacy for medical research was inspired by the specialised care her late husband Lorenzo Galli received during his treatment for cancer.

Thanks to a potent combination of vision and generosity, her philanthropic gifts to the University of Melbourne have been fundamental to the establishment of three professorial Chairs, along with the creation of The Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Medical Research Trust.

Established in 2017, the Galli Medical Research Trust supports collaborative research programs across the Parkville medical precinct, in the areas of cancer and developmental disorders, and enables a unique partnership between the University of Melbourne, the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, WEHI and the Royal Children’s Hospital.

Professor Jane Gunn, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, highlighted the uniqueness of the Galli Medical Research Trust. “It provides significant and long-term funding to key programs of research, enabling these teams to innovate and explore avenues of enquiry that would not otherwise receive funding through traditional funding models.”

Taken together, Mrs Galli’s transformational giving enables teams of specialised researchers spanning three fields of medical science – developmental medicine, medical biology, and cancer – to amplify their competencies, promote multidisciplinary collaboration and encourage bold risk-taking, knowing that this is how life-saving breakthroughs happen.

The interchange of ideas

Having built substantial critical mass in computational biology and single-cell sequencing technology, the team’s shared purpose to deliver better patient outcomes is driving an open and collaborative exchange of knowledge across different specialist fields, including the creation of a network of key melanoma researchers across Australia, as well as forums where attendees waive confidentiality agreements to promote transparency.

Professor McArthur is a huge advocate for the initiatives the Galli Medical Research Trust has inspired. “We have initiated a meeting that’s regularly attended by 100-plus people with specific expertise in single-cell. That is enabling a terrific interchange of information and ideas.

Rather than being focused on how to secure the next funding grant, we are able to immerse ourselves in the problems and really come together in a way that we would not have achieved without Pamela’s investment.

An investment in possibility

Professor Doug Hilton AO, Director of WEHI, Head of Medical Biology at the University of Melbourne and the Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Chair in Medical Biology, said Mrs Pamela Galli’s generosity was instrumental to their individual goals and collective aspirations.

“Most donors target one institution or one group. A highly effective hallmark of Pamela’s giving has been the decision to support the University of Melbourne and its affiliated institutions, resulting in an expansive and enduring impact.”

Mrs Pamela Galli AO with Galli Chairs

Mrs Pamela Galli AO, with (left to right) Professor David Amor, Professor Grant McArthur and Professor Doug Hilton AO.

Professor David Amor’s position as the Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Chair in Developmental Medicine and his work at the Royal Children’s Hospital has helped identify the causes of developmental disabilities in children, including chromosomal disorders, autism and cerebral palsy. He echoed Professor Hilton’s sentiment, making clear how crucial stable funding is in the pursuit of unlocking meaningful progress on exceptionally complex problems.

“Competitive funding is spasmodic and funding cycles tend to be based on three to four-year timelines. That can be good for some projects, but it is not a great incentive to do long-term ambitious work over 10 years. Our ability to use the Galli Medical Research Trust funding to invest in and hold on to the good researchers ensures continuity which offers such huge help.”

One key appointee, Dr Melanie Eckersley-Maslin, Galli Senior Research Fellow and 2021 recipient of the prestigious Snow Fellowship for her work in embryonic development and cancer progression, has been a valuable addition to Professor McArthur’s research team. “I have no doubt Melanie will become an international leader in her field. Without the support of the Galli Medical Research Trust, we simply would not have been able to offer her a position,” he said.

Professor Gunn agreed. “By nurturing these young, rising research stars and supporting them to realise their potential in Melbourne, we are growing our expertise and creating a hive of activity that will transform future research and the way we care for those impacted by these conditions.”

The power of healthy collaboration

Although each Galli Chair is responsible for directing the researchers within their own field, the cross-pollination of ideas, findings and fresh ways of working encouraged by Mrs Galli, has been openly embraced by all three Galli Chairs.

“The focus on bringing us together to work as a unified team was a truly visionary part of the Galli Medical Research Trust and is really starting to deliver the goods,” said Professor McArthur.

Professor Hilton is equally enthusiastic about how collaboration is enhancing their work. “When you assemble a team of diverse specialists who are committed to working with each other strategically but view the world in different ways, you end up doing better science. I have always valued multigenerational, multidisciplinary collaborations where everybody is respected for the thoughts and insights they bring to the table. That is an exciting way to do science and it is the kind of research Pamela has been able to support.”

As to what the next decade holds, Professor Amor is keen to move beyond diagnosis to the delivery of effective treatments. “I want to improve the lives of families and children with disability, primarily through treatment. Although I am interested in non-therapeutic elements, my ideal goal is to realise effective treatments that can be implemented early to make the biggest long-term difference to a child’s life.”

As for Professor McArthur, he is confident that the current trajectory of their work will lead to greatly improved outcomes for cancer patients. Beyond this, he hopes that the evident success of a research-first, collaborative way of working, as supported by the Galli Medical Research Trust, can be the catalyst for extending this model to further areas.

It is great to be focusing on developmental disorders and cancer, but could the way we do things here be applied to other fundamental challenges, like mental health or other chronic diseases? I would love to see the unified approach we have achieved here become the mainstay approach to solving other health problems.

All three Galli Chairs are convinced philanthropy will continue to play a significant role in supporting medical breakthroughs far into the future and have no doubt that the exceptional contributions of philanthropists like Mrs Galli are making some of the most significant medical breakthroughs possible.

Professor Gunn believes the outcome of this reliable and sustained funding for cancer and developmental disorders will be profound. “It will enable discoveries that will change the way we diagnose, manage and treat these conditions. It will vastly improve the lives of those affected by cancer and developmental disorders and their families. And it will enable these research teams to expedite research outcomes in a way they would not have had the opportunity to otherwise.”

Give Read more - Research Impact