This year’s Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation Medal has been awarded to Professor Roberto Cappai in recognition of his internationally acclaimed research into the causes of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. His research has made a profound difference to our understanding of progressive neurological diseases and lead to new diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.
Professor Cappai has defined the properties of particular rogue protein molecules that go bad in neurodegeneration – the amyloid ß in Alzheimer’s disease, the a-synuclein protein in Parkinson’s disease and the prion protein in spongiform encephalopathies. ‘Understanding what makes these rogue proteins toxic and disease causing has made it possible to identify molecules that can block the formation of the toxic protein and/or its toxic actions on brain cells’, Professor Cappai explained.
Presenting the BGRF medal on behalf of the Foundation, Professor Colin Masters, a previous winner of this prestigious medal, reflected on Professor Cappai’s ground-breaking work identifying structures with the potential to protect the brain from a variety of toxic and traumatic damage. ‘Prevention would be the ultimate goal, avoiding the human cost of these devastating diseases’, he explained.
Accepting the BGRF Medal and $5,000 cheque, Professor Cappai said it was humbling to receive a medal previously awarded to Australia’s most pre-eminent neuroscience researchers. He went on to say that it was a privilege to be recognised by the Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation with its important focus on progressive neurological diseases, palliative care and stroke.
Professor Cappai stressed the collaborative nature of his research and acknowledged the enormous contribution of his team at The University of Melbourne. ‘My achievements would not have been possible in isolation. They are the result of collaboration and the effort of a small but dedicated team over many years,’ Professor Cappai said.
As well as securing more than $30 million in funding for this vital research over his career, Professor Cappai has also made a major contribution to emerging scientists as an inspirational role model and teacher. He has used his research outcomes to collaborate widely with a range of industry partners to develop, screen and test potential therapeutic and diagnostic agents for both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
The impact of Professor Cappai’s work can also be seen in his prolific publishing achievements. He has attracted more than 10,000 citations from over 180 primary research papers and has spoken at nearly 80 national and international events.
The Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation awards this medal and a $5,000 gift for outstanding contribution to clinical research in progressive neurological disorders, stroke or palliative care. Past winners have included the leaders of Australia’s research community such as Professor Ian Maddocks, Professor Claude Bernard, Professor Frederick Mendelsohn, Professor Colin Masters, Professor Geoffrey Donnan, Professor Sam Berkovic, Professor Philip Beart, Professor Stephen Davis, Professor Linda Kristjanson, Professor Trevor Kilpatrick, Professor Ingrid Scheffer and Professor Kathryn North.
Bio of Professor Cappai
Professor Roberto Cappai graduated Bachelor of Science with first class honours from Monash University in 1987. He undertook his Ph.D. at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (1991) with Commonwealth Postgraduate Research and Australian Postgraduate Research scholarships. His Ph.D. project focused on studying variation in gene expression in the human malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.
He remained at the Walter and Eliza Hall institute for a two year post-doctoral stint studying the cellular and molecular basis for virulence in Leishmania parasites.
In 1993 he joined the Department of Pathology, The University of Melbourne, as a research officer to study neurodegenerative diseases. He subsequently established his own group in1996 and has led an internationally competitive laboratory that has made novel and critical discoveries into the molecular and cellular pathways responsible for neurodegenerative disease and traumatic brain injury.
In 2011 he was promoted to Professor. He has held senior university appointments as Acting Head of Department and Deputy Head of Department.
He has an international reputation in the field of neurochemistry being elected in 2011 as council member to the International Society for Neurochemistry.
He has been an editorial board member for the Journal of Neurochemistry since 2002, and in 2013 he was promoted to Deputy Chief Editor. He was appointed an NHMRC Fellow three times from 2009-2014.
His major research achievements are:
• Defining the molecular and cellular basis for amyloid toxicity.
• Defining the molecular basis for protein aggregation.
• Deciphering the Structure:function relationships of the Amyloid Precursor Protein-family.
• Defining the molecular basis for the dopamine:a-synuclein axis.
• Defining novel aspects of metal homeostasis and metal mediated toxicity.
• Defining the molecular basis for the Amyloid Precursor Protein as a neuroprotective molecule in traumatic brain injury.
His work has led to papers in the leading journals including Nature Structural Biology, Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Biological Chemistry, FASEB J, Biochemistry, Journal of Neurochemistry, Journal of Molecular Biology, Journal of Pathology, Proc Natl Acad Sci, Neuron, Nature Medicine, and Cell.
The impact of his work is highlighted by an H-index 57. He has published more than 180 primary research papers which have attracted > 10,000 citations. 30 papers have received at least 100 citations.
He has received 38 International and 41 National speaking invitations.
In 2015 he delivered the Prof. J J Ghosh Memorial Lecture, Neurocon-2015: International Conference on "Development, Degeneration and Regeneration of Neurons: Neurochemistry to Clinical Neurology”, Haldia India
He has received substantial competitive and commercial funding that total more than $30 million.
He has supervised 19 PhD students and 7 Honours students to completion.