Media Centre

Awards and Grants

11 Sep 2012 - Top prize gives Australian medical researcher opportunity to test a controversial theory of autoimmunity

Australian National University’s Professor Chris Goodnow claimed the prestigious GlaxoSmithKline Award for Research Excellence tonight for his pioneering work on autoimmune diseases.

Professor Goodnow was awarded $80,000 to further develop his world-leading research on the cause of autoimmune diseases – something still unknown in most people affected by these disorders.

His research will now test a controversial theory - that autoimmune disorders are a form of benign cancer - and has the potential to lead to more effective treatments and preventions for the millions who struggle or are at risk of these diseases globally.

“It’s a high risk and high returns approach – testing a theory for autoimmune disease that’s somewhat controversial. Some people really love it, but some people really hate it. That’s a good sign; no one finds it boring.” Professor Goodnow said.

Professor Goodnow received the GlaxoSmithKline Award for Research Excellence for his significant achievements in understanding why autoimmune diseases develop. During his 30 years of research, he has improved our understanding of how the immune system decides what is a person’s body and what is an invading microbe that should be attacked. In patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can't tell the difference between healthy body tissue and microbes. Professor Goodnow has also identified genes and pathways involved in these decisions.

On receiving the award, Professor Goodnow spoke about how funding from the grant will enable his research team to use a new technology, known as Massively Parallel Sequencing , to test his controversial hypothesis – that autoimmune diseases are a form of benign lymphoma cancer.

“It is an honour and a very exciting time to be recognised for my work. While there is still a long way to go in this area, this award has come at a very exciting stage of our research, and will help take us to the next level,” Professor Goodnow said.

“Without the grant from this award, the process to apply for funding to use the Massively Parallel Sequencing technology would potentially halt our research for years, delaying our understanding of autoimmune diseases and discovery of new treatments.

“We’ve based our hypothesis on lots of circumstantial evidence, and now a path has opened that will allow us to see whether the genetic mutations that have recently been found to cause lymphoma also hasten the development of autoimmune disease. If we find this, it could open up opportunities in the future for treatments for autoimmune diseases, which may include using the new drugs developed for treating lymphoma cancers.”

Although his hypothesis that autoimmunity is a benign form of lymphoma cancer is controversial, Professor Goodnow believes that he is on the right track. Further, his hero and major influence, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet arrived at the same theory back in 1972.

GSK Australia Medical Director Dr Andrew Yeates presented Professor Goodnow with the award and acknowledged his work as a reflection of the significant global contribution Australia makes to the advancement of health and medical research.

“For the past 32 years this award has recognised excellence in scientific achievement in Australia and it’s an honour to recognise Professor Goodnow tonight. We hope his achievements will inspire other researchers to continue their efforts to better understand human health and patient care,” Dr Yeates said.

Autoimmune diseases are some of the most complex, unfamiliar and devastating conditions affecting more than a million Australians. They comprise of more than 80 chronic and often disabling illnesses including type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes), systemic lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. For reasons unknown, their prevalence is rising .

Professor Goodnow knows first-hand the potential his research will bring to others who suffer from autoimmune diseases, having seen the impact it had on his family after his mother suffered from systemic lupus, and his father having passed away from lymphoma.

Professor Goodnow was selected as the winner of the 2012 GlaxoSmithKline Award for Research Excellence from more than 50 of Australia’s leading researchers. He will join a list of alumni winners that includes many of the country’s most respected scientists. This includes renowned Australian virologist and 1982 award winner, Professor Ian Gust AO, who gave an inaugural oration at the celebratory event. Gust shared his insights into the role of serendipity in the development of the hepatitis A vaccine and his thoughts on challenges and opportunities for Australia’s medical research sector today.

Media enquiries:
Katie Croft, Buchan Consulting, 03 8866 1223 or 0413 780 545,

i. Nature 437, 326-327 (15 September 2005), Published online 14 September 2005
ii. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation 2010 Australian Type1 Diabetes,