Creative chemist named ‘Tall Poppy’

With treatment breakthroughs for diseases like TB and cancer to his credit – and a talent for communication – Luke Henderson has received a Victorian “Young Tall Poppy” Science Award.

Using forensic science to create “crime scenes” to engage primary school-aged “detectives” is one way that Deakin University’s Associate Professor Luke Henderson uses creativity to find ways to make science interesting.

The same creativity has led to outstanding breakthroughs in organic and materials chemistry for Associate Professor Henderson, involving creative approaches to developing new treatments for cancer and tuberculosis.

Associate Professor Henderson has received a Victorian “Young Tall Poppy” Science Award – recognising him as one of the state’s most promising scientists. He was presented with the award in Melbourne on November 16. The “Tall Poppies” are one of the state’s most prestigious science awards for early career researchers, acknowledging young scientists who have already made discoveries and demonstrated leadership within their communities.

Deakin Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander AO, who personally nominated Associate Professor Henderson, was delighted at the announcement.

“Through his passion for science, his expertise as a researcher and his ability to communicate across age groups and backgrounds, Luke is making a difference in our world,” Professor den Hollander said.

[testimonial_text]He joins a handful of previous Young Tall Poppies at Deakin, including Dr Emma Sciberras, who received the award last year. We are very proud of our Tall Poppies, who continue to make outstanding contributions to science and share their scientific enthusiasm with their communities, including the general public.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Professor Jane den Hollander AO” details=”Deakin University Vice-Chancellor”]
WHOCC Health Literacy Launch[/testimonial_picture]

Based within Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials, Associate Professor Henderson applies organic chemistry to the development of new medicines, new materials and new chemical structures.

He graduated with his PhD in 2007 and completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship with Oxford University before joining Deakin in 2008 as an inaugural Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellow in organic chemistry. He has an outstanding track record of academic peer-reviewed publications, as well as several patents.

“I believe that making science accessible should be a part of every scientist’s life,” he said.

“Great science needs to be well communicated if it is to provide the evidence-base necessary to shape critical policy decisions and industry investment choices. For young Australians, STEM education is critical for the nation’s future. STEM subjects build skills in problem solving and creativity, which are important – whether or not students become scientists.”

Associate Professor Henderson regularly talk to groups of high school students and has hosted teachers and small groups of interested students in his laboratory for supervised lab work.

He has developed a high profile in the Geelong community and is often asked to address groups, such as the recent Geelong “Relay for Life” fundraiser for cancer, where he provided an overview of his research outcomes and recounted his personal experiences with cancer and its impact on his family.

[testimonial_text]Cancer in all its forms is a horrible disease that does not discriminate between age, gender, or race.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Associate Professor Luke Henderson” details=””]
Associate Professor Luke Henderson[/testimonial_picture]

“It is a crippling burden on those suffering from the disease and those that care for them. Sometimes, undergoing treatment for cancer is as painful and crippling as the cancer itself and is only the slightly lesser of two evils. This is because cancer treatments do not see a difference between cancer cells and healthy cells,” he said.

“My research focuses on using the destructive nature of cancer cells against themselves. A healthy cell is like a house, it requires maintenance and cleaning, and when the house is no longer usable, it is demolished. Cancer cells divide very quickly. This means they are unable to manage simple processes like ‘taking out the garbage’. Just like in the real world, if too much garbage accumulates in one place the house becomes uninhabitable and is bulldozed.

“This characteristic of cancer cells provides an opportunity to specifically target cancer cells for treatment. This approach is called cancer-selective therapy, and in my lab we make molecules that can generate ‘molecular garbage’ in cancer cells and not healthy cells. In this way, only the cancer cells become overrun with problems and are shut down, while the healthy cells can clean themselves as they normally would and are not affected. This minimises the painful side-effects of cancer treatment.”

Associate Professor Henderson has attracted over $13 million in funding to translate research into concrete outcomes. This work has attracted a high level of industry engagement, with industry partners such as the US Navy, the Australian Research Council, Solvay, Ford (USA), Boeing, ELG Carbon Fibre and SABIC – a global leader in diversified chemicals.

His work on developing anti-tubercular drugs received praise for its success in attracting attention to an underfunded disease.

He is guest editor to “Current Medicinal Chemistry,” and was on the organising committee for the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s 100-year anniversary congress in July 2017. He has received a number of external awards, including the “Smart Geelong Innovation in Science Award” and the “Smart Geelong Researcher of the Year Award.”

Main photograph (from left): Andreas Hendlmeier, Filip Stojcevski, Samantha Hockey, Luke Henderson, Laetitia Raynal, Dan Eyckens and Lucas Marinovic

Published by Deakin Research on 17 November 2017

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