Brain Drain Reversed

Professor Alistair Forrest
Professor Alistair Forrest

An internationally renowned genomic researcher who published breakthrough discoveries about cell development in top international journal Science today, has returned to his home town of Perth after 20 years.

Professor Alistair Forrest has joined the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to continue his important work in Systems Biology and Genomics with a renewed focus on cancer.

Professor Forrest’s publication in Science followed years of work at the Japanese research organisation RIKEN coordinating over 250 scientific collaborators from 20 countries in the Japan-based FANTOM5 project, which made major strides toward resolving an outstanding mystery in biology.

“All humans start from a single fertilized egg which divides repeatedly and eventually forms all the cells that make up our bodies. During this process different sets of genes are switched on or off to run different programs in each of the 200 or so cell types that make up our bodies,” Professor Forrest explained.

“What has been studied in this work is how your cells switch from one cell type or program to another. It’s amazing what can be achieved through large scale collaborative research.”

The consortium showed that when cells undergo changes such as differentiation into specialized cell types, the initial activation happens at DNA regions called enhancers, a type of regulatory “switch” which are typically located far from the genes that they activate.

The research, which examined a variety of cellular changes, showed that activation of enhancers triggers the coordinated waves of change that end up dramatically changing the phenotypes of the cells.

In particular, enhancers are activated in the first 15 minutes after stimuli, and then activate a specific type of regulatory gene (transcription factors) at 30-100 minutes, which in turn have the ability of activating other genes over time, forming a cascade of changes.

Professor Forrest was born in Western Australia and was recently recruited to the Perkins thanks to funds raised in the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer as well as a Senior Cancer Fellowship from the Cancer Research Trust.

He has started the new Systems Biology and Genomics group at the Perkins and aims to apply new genomic and bioinformatic approaches to studying basic biology and cancer.

“It’s great to be back in WA after 20 years away. There is this critical mass forming for medical genomic science in Perth and it’s an exciting time,” Professor Forrest said.

Professor Forrest was welcomed by Perkins Director Professor Leedman, who said that cancer research was a major focus for the institute and he looked forward to exciting new developments from Professor Forrest’s laboratory.

Other Australian based authors in the Science paper were Professor Peter Klinken (WA’s chief Scientist) and Dr Louise Winteringham at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research; Professor Ernst Wolvetang and Associate Professor Christine Wells at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (UQ) and Dr Timo Lassmann at the Telethon Kids Institute.

The FANTOM5 project also included collaboration with international experts in bioinformatics, genomics, immunology, obesity and stem cell biology from around the world.

Today’s publication is another important milestone for the FANTOM consortium, which in March 2014 used CAGE technology to build almost complete atlases of the promoters and enhancers in our genomes.

Media Contact

Carolyn Monaghan, Communications Manager, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, 0448 021 932,


  1. Arner E. et al. Transcribed enhancers lead waves of coordinated transcription in transitioning mammalian cells. Science
  2. The FANTOM5 web site
  3. Forrest A.R.R. et al. A promoter level mammalian expression atlas. Nature
  4. Andersson, R. et al. An atlas of active enhancers across human cell types and tissues. Nature

About the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Our mission is to improve the health of Western Australians through cutting edge research that translates into new ways to prevent and treat disease. The research at the Perkins focuses on the major diseases that face Western Australians today including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. The cancers under study include breast, prostate, melanoma, colon, head and neck, liver and leukaemia. For more information visit

About the Cancer Research Trust

The Cancer Research Trust vision is to make an internationally significant contribution to the development of cures for cancer. To achieve this we are actively driving world-class innovative and collaborative research in WA, and reversing the brain drain by enticing back to Perth our most valuable export; world leaders in medical research.

About the MACA Ride to Conquer Cancer

The MACA Ride to Conquer Cancer is Western Australia’s largest cycling fundraising event and helps support ground breaking cancer research at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research. In 2014 the ride drew 1,311 riders and raised $5.2 million. The 2015 ride will be on the weekend of 17th & 18th October.


The FANTOM project (functional annotation of the mammalian genome) is a RIKEN-initiative launched in 1998 by genomics pioneer Professor Yoshihide Hayashizaki. The first FANTOM aimed to build a complete gene catalogue with cDNA technologies. Now completing this 5th stage FANTOM5 has aimed to provide the first holistic view of transcriptional regulatory network models for the majority of the cell types that make up a human. To do this the RIKEN organisers recruited a multidisciplinary network of experts in primary cell biology and bioinformatics. Over a 5 year period, the group met 3 times in Yokohama and used weekly teleconferences and emails to manage the project.


RIKEN is Japan’s largest research institute for basic and applied research. Over 2500 papers by RIKEN researchers are published every year in leading scientific and technology journals covering a broad spectrum of disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medical science. RIKEN’s research environment and strong emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and globalization has earned a worldwide reputation for scientific excellence. Website Find us on Twitter at @riken_en.