World-class praise for FECRI labs

IMPRESSED: FECRI honorary director George Kannourakis shows Nobel laureate Peter Doherty about the institute's bright new laboratories before their official opening on Wednesday. Picture: Lachlan Bence
IMPRESSED: FECRI honorary director George Kannourakis shows Nobel laureate Peter Doherty about the institute's bright new laboratories before their official opening on Wednesday. Picture: Lachlan Bence

THIS state-of-the lab could be anywhere in the world – New York, London, Boston, Melbourne. Yet it is right in the heart of Ballarat.

Fiona Elsey’s dream and her dying wish, for cancer research in her hometown, is now a bustling, vibrant institute that is just starting to capture international attention for its work.

Nobel laureate professor Peter Doherty says big discoveries need not be made in big laboratories – they just need the right people doing research with the right technology. Like the new Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute base at Federation University’s technology park.

Scientists moved in earlier this year and Professor Doherty was a special guest speaker for the new FECRI opening on Wednesday. FECRI’s immunology research particularly captures Professor Doherty’s fascination and support because of his own biomedical background. Study into how the immune cells protect against viruses was the core of Professor Doherty’s joint Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

“This institute, built on an historic site, is really state-of-the-art and what you expect to see anywhere in the world. It’s important for Ballarat because it gives possibility to new discoveries,” Professor Doherty said.

“When I started researching, it was a lot more experimental but it’s much more about the people now...You have to have the technology and that’s what keeps Ballarat in it – you can’t do the research they are doing here without it.”

FECRI honorary director George Kannourakis spoke to institute staff and supporters about the institute’s early beginnings in a disused paint shed behind St John of God Hospital in Ballarat, about 20 years ago. Gradually, work and growing staff expanded into the hospital’s old boiler room – until the hospital needed the space for its own redevelopment. FECRI, in a partnership with Federation University, was able to develop bright, new laboratories on the SMB campus.

Work today focuses on unlocking why immune cells are not responding to cancer and how to make immune cells more effective. FECRI has also long-term research into the world's only random chemosensitivity testing on lung cancer patients.

Collaboration with Federation University allows FECRI access to high-quality, inquisitive students, which in turn have greater access to laboratories and samples for their research and studies than they might in a competitive major city location.

“This was (Fiona Elsey’s) wish,” Professor Kannourakis said. “One night she told me she wanted research in Ballarat to be internationally recognised, to do big work and make a difference...it’s slowing coming to fruition.”

Fiona Elsey died of a rare bone cancer in 1991.

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