Prof Susan Clark
18 August 2009
The work of Garvan’s Professor Susan Clark is featured in the NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) 10 of the Best Research Projects 2009 booklet, launched this morning in Canberra.
Of the hundreds of research projects funded by the NHMRC each year, the booklet highlights those that best help combat some of the nation’s biggest health challenges.
Professor Clark’s area of expertise is epigenetics, a branch of research that seeks to understand changes that occur in the function of genes without a change in the genome sequence. Epigenetics concerns itself with the multitude of chemical interactions that modify DNA and determine how it is packaged in the cell.
Professor Clark and her research team have shown that even though identical twins have an identical genome sequence their epigenome sequence can vary leading to subtle changes in the twins’ appearance and disease susceptibility.
Epigenetic processes can lead to ‘good’ genes, such as tumour suppressor genes, being switched off and ‘bad’ genes being switched on. They can also compact the DNA in such a way that a gene simply becomes inaccessible to any form of activation or modification.
Professor Clark was one of the founding members of the Australian Epigenome Alliance, formed in late 2008. A national body attracting leading lights in the field, its aim is to make sure that Australia maintains its high international standing in epigenetics, and has a voice in the international epigenome project.
Frequently comparing epigenetic research to working on an unexplored frontier, or the outer reaches of the universe, Clark is very excited by all the possibilities being opened up by new knowledge combined with sophisticated technologies.
"We now have the tools to detect the chemical changes in the DNA of one cell in 10,000," she said.
"While we need to be able to detect change, and so diagnose disease, the real power of epigenetic research will be in altering those chemical changes and so preventing disease."