Tag Archives: Biochemistry

immune system

Discovery helps researchers better understand immune system

A team from The Australian National University (ANU) and Monash University found the immune system can recognise more proteins from viruses and vaccines than previously thought.

“More than 80 per cent of the virus proteins can be recognised by the immune system and used to trigger an immune reaction by the body. This is much more than was expected”, said senior author Professor David Tscharke from the John Curtin School of Medical Research at ANU.

immune system

Professor David Tscharke. (Image credit: Jamie Kidston, ANU)

“This work has unearthed a better understanding of how well viruses and vaccines are recognised by the body.”

Lead author Dr Nathan Croft, from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), said the findings will have practical outcomes for new vaccines.

“We can now begin to apply this knowledge to other viruses and to cancer, to pinpoint favourable targets for the immune system,” said Dr Croft.

The team used vaccinia virus to understand how much of a virus is actually recognised and targeted by the immune system.

Vaccinia virus was used as a vaccine to eradicate smallpox and is now repurposed as a tool against other viruses as well as cancers.

“This is a remarkable finding that highlights the power of mass spectrometry to identify the entirety of viral antigens that are exposed to the immune system,” said co-senior author, Professor Anthony Purcell from Monash BDI.

“The translation to human infectious disease is obvious, but the identification of tumor derived antigens is also an exciting area we are developing to drive the precision oncology field and cancer immunotherapy.”

“Our results also show that no part of the virus is hidden from the immune system, no matter what time these parts are produced or how they are used by the virus,” said Professor Tscharke.

The team used a combination of biochemistry, bioinformatics and statistics to identify viral peptides present on the surface of infected cells and analyse the ability of the immune system to see them as foreign targets.

The research, supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC) is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

This article was originally published by ANU.

discovery

Thrill of discovery

The thrill of discovery is what biochemist Marilyn Anderson relishes in her work. “It’s a feeling you can’t even imagine: when you’re the first person to solve a problem,” she says.

Anderson is a Professor of Biochemistry at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) and the Chief Science Officer of Hexima, a biotechnology company embedded in LIMS. Anderson co-founded Hexima in 1998 following her discovery of naturally occurring insecticidal and antifungal molecules in the reproductive parts of plants.

The team at Hexima are exploiting these molecules to develop genetically modified crops that are protected from insect predation and fungal infections – a game changer for agriculture. Research in this area is ongoing, as insects are developing resistance to the commonly used BT toxin, an insecticide produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and new insecticidal genes are needed. “It’s a huge market,” says Anderson.

“We will not be able to feed and clothe humanity if we don’t have insect and fungal-resistant plants.”

Anderson did a BSc (Hons) at the University of Melbourne and then completed her PhD in biochemistry at La Trobe University. Her enthusiasm for this field is clear: “I’m still knocked over by just how amazing biology is, and how things have evolved to work”.

After graduating, Anderson was drawn to “the revolution of the time – the beginning of gene cloning and molecular biology”. She moved to the USA and worked on diabetes at the University of Miami before transferring to Cold Spring Harbor to conduct cancer research. “We were paving the way. It was extremely exciting because while I was at Cold Spring Harbor the first oncogenes, or cancer-causing genes, were discovered,” she says.

Expertise in molecular biology was internationally sought after at the time and was the crux of much interdisciplinary research. In 1982 Anderson was offered a job with Laureate Professor Adrienne Clarke AC at the Plant Cell Biology Research Centre at the University of Melbourne. “That was a big switch for me,” says Anderson. “I’d been working on cancer and this was a botany school.” Together, Anderson and Clarke were able to discover the gene that prevents self-pollination, or inbreeding, in flowering plants.

Now a leader in the scientific community, Anderson is not only a director at Hexima; she is also on the La Trobe University Council and was inducted into the 2014 Victorian Honour Roll for Women for her scientific achievements.

Gender equality and supporting women in science are two things Anderson is passionate about. “There’s a lot of work to be done just to give women equal opportunity,” she says. “There are many talented female scientists here at Hexima, and I enjoy mentoring women and helping them through the early stages of their career.”

Anderson conducts workshops with secondary students that focus on women in science, and she’s part of Supporting Women in Science (SWIS), a new association at La Trobe that gives guidance to female postgraduate researchers in STEM.

“This is a proactive program to direct universities to pay more attention to gender diversity.”


Anderson will be speaking at Women in Science, an event hosted by La Trobe University for Melbourne Knowledge Week in May 2016. The panel discussion will centre on the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers. The MC will be science journalist Robyn Williams. Panel speakers will also include NHMRC Biomedical Fellow of the Peter MacCullum Cancer Centre, Misty Jenkins; Head of La Trobe’s School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, Wenny Rahayu; and nanotechnology research assistant and nominee for Women’s Weekly Women of the Future Award in 2015, Elana Montagner. For more information and to register for the event, head to www.latrobe.edu.au/womeninscience.


Cherese Sonkkila

Australian farming

Foundations for Success

The hugely successful career of John Curtin Distinguished Professor Richard Oliver didn’t get off to a perfect start. First, he was not accepted into medical school and, crestfallen, he decided to study biochemistry. As a student, he fainted taking blood from a rabbit, so he turned his attention to plants. It was a fortunate decision and the serendipitous launch to a career that’s since brought huge benefits to Australian farming.

UK-born Oliver began his studies at Bristol University, where he received a “rigorous education in biochemistry” – much of which he has been using ever since. In 1982, realising the potential of the then-infant science of molecular biology, he went to work at Denmark’s Carlsberg Laboratory to train in new genetics techniques.

After accepting a lectureship in molecular biology at the University of East Anglia in the UK, he decided to work on the genes that make plants resistant to disease: an area of great importance but about which little was known at the time.

Working on a fungus that attacks tomatoes, Oliver looked at the interactions from both sides – building up a picture of the plant genes that conveyed resistance and the genes of the fungus that made it virulent. During the next 15 years, he pioneered techniques to analyse plant-fungal interactions. A job as a professor back at the Carlsberg Laboratory gave him the resources to start really making an impact, and soon he was in Australia working on fungal diseases of wheat and barley – first at Murdoch University, then at Curtin University.

Oliver is now the Chief Scientist at Curtin’s new Centre for Crop and Disease Management, made possible by $100  million in funding over the next five years from the university and the government Grains Research Development Corporation (GRDC). “It’s the biggest grant in the history of Curtin University,” Oliver says.

“Up to now, we’ve had two major success stories,” he says of work that preceded the grant. One involved selecting for wheat varieties that are not affected by proteins produced by fungal pathogens. The other involved alerting the farming community about crop management techniques to improve the control of major fungal diseases.

As a GRDC adviser, Oliver had the task of convincing farmers that the organisation was spending their money wisely. It wasn’t easy in the early days, but it’s not as difficult now that his two success stories are saving Australian farming up to $200 million every year.

Oliver believes an excellent university education underlies his success. “What’s important in your education is not the specific information you learn, but the ability to carry on learning.” Perhaps his career had the perfect start after all.

Clare Pain