The Merck Millipore Research Medal: Stuart Pitson

Centre for Cancer Biology
SA Pathology

Stuart Pitson is an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Cancer Biology, SA Pathology, and an Affiliate Associate Professor of the School of Molecular and Biomedical Science, University of Adelaide. He heads a laboratory that studies sphingolipid-mediated cell signalling, particularly in relation to cancer, inflammation and wound healing.

Stuart obtained his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from La Trobe University, Bendigo, where he first gained inspiration to enter a career in research through an undergraduate research project supervised by Professor Robert Seviour and Dr Barbara McDougall. He undertook his PhD in the same group examining fungal β-glucan degrading enzymes, which included a considerable stay in the laboratory of the late Professor Bruce Stone. Stuart then continued his interest in the area of polysaccharide-degrading enzymes during a postdoctoral stay with Dr Gerrit Beldman and Professor Alphons Voragen at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he used NMR and HPLC techniques to define the catalytic mechanisms and action patterns of several enzymes important in food processing. He then returned to Australia to spend a short, but productive, stint with Associate Professor George Mendz in the School of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the University of New South Wales where he applied his NMR skills to examine another set of enzymes, this time the tricarboxylic acid cycle of the gastric pathogen Helicobacter pylori.

In 1998, Stuart moved to Adelaide to take up a position with Dr Binks Wattenberg in the Hanson Centre for Cancer Research, where he was able to apply his strong interest in enzyme regulation and catalytic mechanisms to the then emerging field of sphingolipid signalling. Although he didn’t realise it at the time, this turned out to be a career-defining move, since he found himself at the foundation of an exploding field when he published the first cloning of human sphingosine kinase in 2000. He established his own laboratory in the same location (now Centre for Cancer Biology at SA Pathology) in 2003 upon the award of an NHMRC RD Wright Fellowship. Stuart’s current research continues to investigate sphingolipid signalling, and in particular, the main controlling enzymes of this pathway, the sphingosine kinases, which are attractive targets for cancer therapy. Among other findings, his work has employed both in vitro and in vivo techniques to decipher the regulatory mechanisms controlling these enzymes and define the key roles of phosphorylation, protein-protein interactions and subcellular localisation in their function.

Stuart has published over 75 publications, currently sits on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the Editorial Advisory Panel of the Biochemical Journal, and has been appointed Chair of ComBio2012.