Solving one of the great puzzles of human genetics

Lawrence Creative Prize

Jian Yang was present at the luncheon in Sydney, via Skype, where he received his $25,000 prize.

The winner of the Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is Dr Jian Yang, from the Diamantina Institute of the University of Queensland.

He has solved one of the great puzzles of human genetics—why the genes typically implicated in inherited diseases like schizophrenia, obesity and diabetes only account for a small amount of their heritability.

Jian developed statistical software to analyse genetic data in a different way. This showed that inheritance of these complex conditions depends on tens and sometimes hundreds of genes which all contribute a little bit to the risk of developing the disease. So we need to sift through samples of a much greater size to find them all. The heritability was not missing, but hiding in the data.

His prize was announced today, Thursday 15 November 2012, at a lunch at financial services company UBS in Sydney.

He received a cheque for $25,000 and a “fruit of knowledge” glass sculpture.

The purpose of the Prize is to encourage Australia’s best young biomedical researchers to stay in Australia and build their careers here.

“I think the scientific environment here is comparable to the US and UK, and in my field —statistical genetics or human genetics—Australia is a leader. And it is very nice here.”

“The award has given me encouragement, and suggests that my research has been accepted by medical researchers, and that myself and my colleagues have been recognised.”

The work has direct consequences for the designing the right experiments in medical genetics, according to Jian’s supervisor and mentor, Professor Peter Visscher. “His approach takes the whole genome into account, whereas previously people took one genetic variant associated with a disease at a time. Jian’s was the crucial statistical approach that answered the question.”

“It’s quite interesting that both Jian’s and my own background are in agricultural genetics— and we borrowed the techniques from there,” Prof Visscher said.

“The scientific judging panel has been astounded at the quality of the applications. Jian Yang is a worthy winner,” said Centenary Institute Executive Director, Professor Mathew Vadas.

20 applications were received from early-career scientists from universities and medical research institutes around Australia.

The two finalists were Robert McLaughlin a medical engineer from the University of Western Australia and Marc Pellegrini from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne. They will both receive $2,500.

  • Robert has developed an optical probe that fits inside a hypodermic needle to help surgeons accurately determine if they’ve removed all of a breast cancer tumour.
  • Marc’s discoveries about how the body regulates its immune system are being applied to clinical trials of cancer vaccines and treatments for HIV and hepatitis.

The Prize honours Neil Lawrence, the Inaugural Chairman of The Centenary Institute Foundation. Neil and his wife Caroline hold Centenary Institute very near to their hearts, as they are both passionate about advancing the field of medical research so that all Australians can live longer, healthier lives.

“Exceptional young scientists can be hard to keep in Australia and we hope this award will not only celebrate their achievements but also encourage a domestic culture of brilliance in this truly important field”, said Professor Vadas.

“We acknowledge the generosity of our sponsors and thank them for making this prize possible.”

Major sponsors: Val Morgan Cinema Network, Mindshare, stw group.

Supporting sponsors: Deloitte

Event sponsor: UBS

Media sponsor: The Australian


Contact Information

  • Mathew Vadas is available to speak about the winner and finalists. To enquire, please contact
  • Media contact: Niall Byrne on +61 (3) 9398 1416, +61 (417) 131 977.
  • For the media Release on the Centenary Institute website click here