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Media Release

HRC’s Liley Medal winner’s research will encourage new ways of thinking about cancer

Issue date:
Dr Robin Olds, Lady Margaret Liley and Professor Stephen Robertson

The HRC's Liley Medal was awarded on Wednesday 10 November 2010 to Professor Stephen Robertson at the Science Honours Dinner in Christchurch.

Professor Robertson, from the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago in Dunedin, has been honoured for his outstanding research which demonstrates the critical nature of developmental timing of key genetic events and will encourage new ways of thinking about cancer.

His research, published in the journal Nature Genetics (2009), is the first to seriously question current dogma that inherited mutations in a tumour suppressor gene predispose to cancer. This work was conceived, led and performed in Dunedin, and subsequently involved the coordination of a large cohort of international collaborators.

Cancer dogma has been that a mutation in a cancer-causing gene, regardless of whether you are born with it, or acquire it later in life, has the same end result – a predisposition to malignancy.

Professor Robertson’s paper presents a dramatic exception to what was considered to be this fundamental rule. It had been known that acquiring a mutation in the cancer gene, WTX, early in childhood is associated with malignancy – in this case, a childhood cancer called Wilms tumour. Remarkably, Professor Robertson’s study showed that being born with a WTX mutation results in a developmental bone disease, rather than cancer.

To date, ‘space’ and ‘time’ restraints on tumour development in cancer have been poorly understood, and most research activity has been directed to just understanding which genes, when altered, can lead to cancer. Professor Robertson’s research produced a novel and unexpected finding that indicates that the same genetic event, separated only by space and time, can have dramatically different outcomes. In this case, that being born with a mutation in the cancer gene WTX does not result in the childhood kidney cancer Wilms tumour, whereas acquired mutation in WTX is known to be associated with tumour formation.

His finding charts a way forward for understanding complex disease processes at a time when there is an overwhelming amount of complex genomic information available.

HRC Chief Executive, Dr Robin, Olds said: “Professor Robertson’s nominated paper was published in 2009 in one of the highest ranking journals in the world, and sees him, as senior author, complete a rare trifecta – three papers in five years in Nature Genetics.”


  • Professor Stephen Robertson is the Child Health Research Foundation Professor of Paediatric Genetics at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
  • He was appointed as the Inaugural Curekids Professor in late 2002 and established the Clinical Genetics Laboratory. (The Child Health Research Foundation launched an initiative in 2002 to establish a chair at the University of Otago that was dedicated to aspects of child health research).
  • Professor Robertson has pioneered study of the genetic determinants of congenital malformations in children.