Tag Archives: health

OrbIT group pic resized assistive technology

Game on – assistive tech for Parkinson’s disease

A gaming system called ‘OrbIT’ is being trialled to improve health outcomes for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, thanks to a collaboration between Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and Parkinson’s South Australia.

The three-year study, funded by the Estate of the late Olga Mabel Woolger, will trial the assistive technology as a cognitive training device to improve outcomes and delay the onset of dementia for people with Parkinson’s disease. The research project is led by Flinders University Rehabilitation Engineer David Hobbs and University of Adelaide neuroscientist Dr Lyndsey Collins-Praino, in partnership with Parkinson’s South Australia.

The OrbIT system is a fun and easy to use computer gaming system designed to engage the player in targeted, cognitively challenging activities. It features a novel controller which does not require a strong grip or fine motor control. This makes it highly suitable for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, who may otherwise struggle to use traditional gaming consoles.

There are over 82, 000 Australians living with Parkinson’s today, making it the most common major movement disorder and second most prevalent neurodegenerative condition. There is currently no cure.

“Within 15 to 20 years, 80% of people with Parkinson’s will go on to develop dementia”, explains Dr Collins-Praino. “Using the OrbIT system as a cognitive training device may help to slow down and prevent this.”

OrbIT was originally developed for children with cerebral palsy and has also been trialled for people undergoing stroke rehabilitation. The current collaboration came about through a chance meeting when Dr Collins-Praino attended a presentation by OrbIT lead developer Mr Hobbs and suggested the potential for OrbIT to help people with Parkinson’s.  

“Sometimes the best collaborations come about by chance”, says Dr Collins-Praino, who is looking forward to using OrbIT in a clinical setting. “It’s really exciting to have a potential tool that can make cognitive training accessible.”

The trials will take place through Parkinson’s SA’s new Brain x Body Fitness Studio, a studio which focuses on movement and flexibility, whilst also being a social hub for over 50’s. As well as traditional gym facilities, Brain x Body provides programs and assistive technologies which have been clinically proven to improve neuroplasticity,

Chief Executive Officer of Parkinson’s SA, Olivia Nassaris, has always been on the lookout for assistive technologies and was highly impressed by OrbIT when she first visited Mr Hobbs’ Flinders University laboratory last year. She describes OrbIT as the perfect project. “It happened completely organically. Dr Collins-Praino saw the potential for the benefits of OrbIT to be translated to Parkinson’s research and the collaboration has worked out perfectly between the three groups.”

“Assistive technology such as OrbIT improve quality of life by maximising independence and self-management”, says Ms Nassaris. This research trial will be an important step in improving the health outcomes for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.  

Source: University of Adelaide, Parkinson’s SA

Image: Lyn Paunovic (centre), who has Parkinson’s disease, holds the OrbIT game controller. Left to right: Lyn’s husband Tolley Paunovic, Dr Lyndsey Collins-Praino, Lyn Paunovic, Olivia Nassaris and David Hobbs.

gene therapy

From cell to accessible therapy: the future of regenerative medicine

The cell and gene therapy industry is the fastest growing sector of regenerative medicine. Commercial cell therapies are being developed to treat several major diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune conditions. However, developing and manufacturing cell therapies is lengthy, labour intensive and expensive.

The CRC for Cell Therapy Manufacturing (CTM CRC) began in 2013, operating at the interface of cell biology and materials science. The CRC aims to help the cost-effective manufacture of cell therapies and assist their rapid translation into clinical practice.

CTM CRC’s research programs are driven by commercial imperatives and initially brought together 15 participant organisations across four states, including two international companies. That approach has led to the development of new immunotherapies and novel materials and surfaces to optimise cell and gene therapy manufacture.

From the outset, CTM CRC has focused on developing strategies to ensure its work continues beyond the funding period. “With two CTM CRC legacy vehicles to continue the excellent work carried out to date, the strategy to transition towards self-sufficiency has paid off,” says CTM CRC CEO

Dr Sherry Kothari. The CRC has incorporated its first spin-out company, Carina Biotech, and a second company, TekCyte, will also soon be incorporated. Both Carina and TekCyte will further develop and commercialise CTM CRC technologies, and are poised to continue the CRC’s work of making cell therapies more affordable and accessible.

Carina Biotech — A promising future for cancer treatment

In the last five years, researchers have achieved promising results in clinical trials of a revolutionary new treatment for blood cancers called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR)-T cell therapy. CAR-T cell therapy is an immunotherapy that harnesses the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer.

Since 2012, CAR-T cell therapy trials in adult and paediatric patients have recorded complete remission rates of up to 93%, offering huge potential for leukaemia and lymphoma treatment. The replication of this success in the treatment of solid cancers is a new focus of this approach, and it’s also the basis on which the CRC for Cell Therapy Manufacturing (CTM CRC) company, Carina Biotech, was founded.

“To effectively translate the unprecedented cancer-killing activity of CAR-T cells in blood cancers into solid cancers would represent the Holy Grail in the cellular immunotherapy industry,” says Dr Justin Coombs, CEO of Carina Biotech.

T-cells, the backbone of CAR-T cell therapy, are the ‘warriors’ of the immune system and they attack undesirable cells in the body. CAR-T cell therapy involves isolating a patient’s T-cells from a sample of blood and engineering them so they recognise and attack specific markers on cancer cells. These new CAR-T cells are then infused back into the patient to seek and destroy the cancer.

Carina Biotech’s first lead technology in cell and gene therapy research is a CAR-T cell that attacks a cancer-specific marker on solid cancers, but not on healthy cells. Early data indicates these CAR-T cells can kill a diverse range of solid cancer cells in vitro, including breast, ovarian and brain cancers and melanoma. Pending positive results from in vitro pre-clinical studies, slated to begin in 2018, the first-in-human clinical trials could follow within two years.

It is clear there is great potential for CAR-T cell therapy to play a leading role in the race to cure cancer, but as Dr Coombs cautions, “Solid cancers are shaped by evolution to defend themselves from attack. Carina is aiming to develop weapons for immune cells to destroy all solid cancers.”

TekCyte — Moving rapidly from lab to commercial scale

TekCyte, the translational facility of CTM CRC, was set up to respond to manufacturing challenges in the evolving cell and gene therapy industry. TekCyte’s focus is to translate technologies from the lab to pilot scale.

“Pilot-scale manufacturing is where many technologies stall because they cannot be replicated in commercial settings,” says Dr Tony Simula, who leads TekCyte with Dr Andrew Milligan. “There are unique challenges in scaling up processes involving living cells and TekCyte addresses these as an important step towards commercial manufacture of cell therapy products.”

TekCyte is currently validating two CTM CRC technologies for the commercial market: the delivery of stem cells for the treatment of chronic wounds, and an antithrombotic coating for vascular stents to reduce thrombosis and restenosis. With positive preclinical data to date, it is imperative that TekCyte is able to consistently produce both products in large volumes, as well as meeting stringent regulatory requirements and demonstrating reliable performance. TekCyte’s infrastructure and expertise enables it to fulfil this critical translational role so it can bridge the gap between the laboratory and commercial development.

“TekCyte is unique because it combines materials surface and cell biology expertise, with the know-how and infrastructure required to manufacture at pilot scale,” says Dr Milligan.

“This capability has given TekCyte a competitive advantage and enables it to expand its offering to include product development for companies.”

TekCyte aims to establish itself as an important player in the global supply chain for the regenerative medicine industry. It is evolving into a world-class translational facility, able to develop and supply specialised coatings and processes for cell and gene therapy manufacture and other biomedical applications.

 

science innovation

Bridging innovation’s valley of death

The ‘valley of death’ is the place where good ideas go to die in the world of science innovation. The term hints at the often insurmountable financial, logistical and regulatory chasm required to bring a potential new product or idea to market. Unfortunately, not many negotiate it successfully.

In the world of cancer medicine, there are multiple valleys of death, says to Dr Warwick Tong, CEO of the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (Ctx-CRC).

The original valley of death in science innovation encapsulated the idea that “you can have great basic science. But to have something in your hands to translate and take forward, that was a difficult place to get money,” Tong says.

In the biomedical arena, the move from basic science to translatable concept is now considered only one of three valleys of death. The second is having enough money to take a new therapy to clinical trials, which can run into millions; while the third is having enough money to file and maintain patents — also expensive. However, Tong believes the Cooperative Research Centre model addresses at least one of those challenges.

Translate and Take Forward

The Cancer Therapeutics CRC operates like a semi-virtual biotech company. Though its researchers are based at universities and institutions around the country, they work solely for the CRC —collaborating and communicating by means of an e-research platform, which enables real-time sharing of data. The platform also helps to ensure everything is documented and there’s no loss of data— both important factors in patent applications.

Tong also argues that CRC ownership of patents is particularly important in the commercialisation process, at least when it comes to science innovation. “Our model means it doesn’t matter where the inventors of our patents sit, the patent is assigned to us in the CRC, so we own it,” he says. “One of the things the pharmaceutical industry often struggles with is having to reach back into academic institutions for intellectual property, so they have to be sure we have the right contracts in place for what we own.”

Commercial Partner Pitfalls

While central control of intellectual property by the Commonwealth benefits commercialisation in the science innovation space — and was part of the base agreement in earlier CRCs — it has not been an ideal setup for all CRCs with commercial partners.

A product to come out of the recent Invasive Animals CRC was a new bait for controlling feral pigs, which has just begun field trials in the USA. Feral pigs are a growing scourge not only there, but also across Europe and Australia. The bait started life as ‘PIGOUT’, a 1080-toxin-laced product, before evolving into ‘HOG-GONE’, a highly specific bait for pigs containing a common food preservative — sodium nitrite. This chemical kills them quickly and humanely, but targets pigs specifically and poses almost no chance of collateral damage to other species.

At the time the Invasive Animals CRC was set up, the standard model for CRCs dictated intellectual property be retained by the CRC, regardless of who contributed to that IP.

Professor Linton Staples, managing director of Animal Control Technologies — one of the commercial partners in the Invasive Animal CRC — says that model was not ideal for participating companies because it didn’t adequately recognise partner inputs. To overcome an ‘uncommercial’ approach, his company ensured that the projects for which his company made a substantial cash or in-kind contribution were exclusively licensed back to the company to then commercialise.  

“It had a capital value implication for us,” says Staples, who is also an adjunct professor of animal science at The University of Queensland.

Regulatory Rigor Mortis

Regulatory requirements have been another challenge to making this space commercialised. Registering a new animal toxin and products for use in animal control is an onerous task.

“The process to do the trials to the very high standards of the US Department of Agriculture has meant that everything has to be documented to the last decimal dot,” Staples says. “The data on product efficacy and safety has to be bulletproof for regulatory review.”

The path to commercialisation of HOG-GONE has been far from smooth — at one point the baits were bursting apart, as the toxin reacted with their ingredients. Staples says his company has had to foot a significant amount of the development bill.

“This particular project is now running into millions of dollars, just because of all these technical difficulties we had to solve.” But with support from an AusIndustry Accelerated Commercialisation grant, Staples is hopeful they will soon have their new product on the market.

Finding your Market

One of the biggest traps for aspiring science innovation is finding their niche. That’s an issue that the Data to Decisions CRC isn’t leaving up to chance: they’re going directly to the source, and working with potential clients — namely agencies in the areas of national security and law enforcement — to develop products tailored to their needs.

“Our approach is to build software prototypes that we roll out for the end users to trial,” says the CRC’s commercialisation manager Duane Rivett. “We then use trial feedback to determine which features are put on the product roadmap.” The CRC’s in-house development teams include experienced commercial software architects, software engineers and data scientists, who work closely with the end users on every aspect of a product’s development.

The Data to Decisions CRC has launched two spin-off companies, both wholly owned subsidiaries of the CRC, with boards featuring members of the CRC’s own directors.

“We’re currently looking at expanding the governance of our start-ups to include external advisors and directors, to bring in different viewpoints,” Rivett says.

While the model for CRCs has changed considerably since the program began back in 1991, Rivett believes this approach greatly helps to bridge the valley of death problem in science innovation.

“In our experience, we can build commercial-grade software in-house and leverage our research from our university streams to deliver cutting-edge solutions,” he says.

-Bianca Nogrady

Taming toxic pollution

CRC CARE is addressing the significant growing issue of toxic environmental pollution with innovative and effective real-world solutions.

Recently, major concerns have emerged across Australia about sites contaminated by chemical pollutants known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

Potentially harmful to human health and the environment, some PFAS are active ingredients in firefighting foam. These include PFOS, which is listed in the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. PFAS contamination has become a big problem near some firefighting training areas, where it has contaminated soil and water.

“There are more than 100,000 potentially toxic chemicals and five million potentially contaminated sites globally, so there is a real need for innovation,” says Professor Ravi Naidu, CEO of the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE).

One of CRC CARE’s innovations is a product called matCARE, a modified natural clay that can irreversibly lock up PFAS so polluted soil and water can be decontaminated. Naidu says matCARE is 50% more efficient – and thus cheaper – than similar technologies, and does not leach PFAS over time.

Four firefighting training sites have successfully cleaned up the pollution with matCARE and CRC CARE is now looking to partner with companies to broaden its use beyond the safe storage of the chemical. “The technology that’s available at the moment can only immobilise PFAS and unfortunately there is still a contaminated product at the end,” explains Naidu. “We have developed a technology that breaks down PFAS into carbon dioxide and fluoride. Companies are looking for technology that decomposes PFAS into safe products and we have been able to do that.”

Cherese Sonkkila

crccare.com

Waking up to a big problem

Four in 10 Australians miss out on a good night’s sleep, with inadequate rest costing over $60 billion a year in lost productivity. But research from the Alertness CRC into diagnosis and treatment for sleep disorders promises big benefits to our society and economy, Bianca Nogrady reports.

A bad night’s sleep can ruin your day, but imagine if every night for a year you suffer from a condition that prevents you from getting a full and satisfying night’s rest.

Then imagine that condition affecting four out of 10 Australians and you begin to get a sense of the enormity of our national problem of inadequate sleep.

A recent Sleep Health Foundation report by Deloitte Access Economics estimates the total cost of inadequate sleep in Australia was $66.3 billion in 2016–2017, which is why the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity has the mission “to promote the prevention and control of sleep loss and sleep disorders”.

Theme leader Professor Doug McEvoy says the Alertness CRC is searching for new tools and approaches to diagnose sleep problems with improved, targeted treatments. “While we talk about sleep apnoea and insomnia, within those conditions there is an amazing variety of presentations and causes of them,” he says. “To get good solutions for patients, you have to understand those differences so you can refine and personalise treatments.”

The Alertness CRC focuses on two leading causes of daytime sleepiness: insomnia and sleep apnoea. Each sleep disorder affects 10% of the population.

Insomnia is defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, and it can last from a few weeks to several years. It can be triggered by a stressful event, or related to conditions such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain and heart failure.

Sleep apnoea is a breathing problem whereby people don’t get enough oxygen during sleep so their brain periodically kicks them awake so they can breathe properly again. It’s often related to obesity, but some people have unexplained problems regulating their breathing while asleep.

Part of the challenge with sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnoea is diagnosis, which requires complex tests performed by a specialist. Both conditions are also usually under-diagnosed.

One research focus of the Alertness CRC is developing simpler diagnostic tests that can be administered by a GP, nurse, psychologist or pharmacist.

“We start to involve community practitioners in the identification and management of the condition, and the specialists can then act as more of a tertiary referral system for difficult cases,” says McEvoy.

Another challenge for the Alertness CRC is finding effective treatments for sleep disorders. The current gold standard treatment for sleep apnoea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which requires patients to wear a face mask during sleep. It’s effective, but awkward, and many people can’t or won’t use it.

Patients with insomnia invariably end up being prescribed sleeping medication, which carries the risk of side effects and ‘hangover symptoms’ the next day.

In collaboration with an industry partner and Australian researchers, the Alertness CRC is trialling new solutions to the significant problem of sleepiness.

“Sleep disorders are impacting the health and wellbeing of sufferers, and because they are so prevalent, they’re also impacting productivity and safety of the Australian community,” says McEvoy.

 

ALERTNESSCRC.COM

Digital Health CRC to transform health system

 

With

Australia’s health system has contributed to a transformation in the human condition. We’re living longer – a child born today will on average live to 83 and see in the 22nd Century. We’ve largely defeated infectious diseases and our roads and workplaces are safer than they’ve ever been.

But

Our longer lives bring with them a greater risk of chronic and degenerative diseases which are difficult and expensive to manage and treat.

Obesity and Type 2 diabetes are on the rise. The health system can’t keep up. Australia’s annual health expenditure has passed $170 billion which is more than 10 per cent of GDP.

And the system is splitting at the seams. It’s too complex: for patients and their families, for health professionals, for industry, and for government. For example, adverse drug reactions in Australia are responsible for over 400,000 GP visits a year, and for 30 per cent of elderly emergency admissions. The cost is over $1.2 billion. We believe that half the cost is avoidable.

The Digital Health CRC will

  • Improve the health and wellness of hundreds of thousands of Australians
  • Improve the value of care and reduce adverse drug events
  • Join up data in the health system creating an improved system benefiting all Australians
  • Save the Australian health system $1.8 billion
  • Create at least 1000 new jobs in the digital health and related industry sectors
  • Create new companies and products for Australian and global markets
  • Create a new digital workforce and build the capacity of clinicians and consumers to become digital health ‘natives’

The Digital Health CRC’s 80-member organisations represent every segment of the health system from patient to community, hospital to insurer, start-up to big government. Our researchers, from 16 universities, will work with our health partners to develop and test solutions that work for real patients in real hospitals and other settings of care. And our business partners will work alongside them to ensure that the solutions are scalable and implementable. We’ll develop them in Australia, then take them to the world.  To catalyse the latter, we are partnering with US-based company, HMS, that provides solutions and services to health insurers and their customers across 48 US states.

First published by Science in Public

autism diagnosis

Tackling autism diagnosis on a national level

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by behavioural differences in children, but autism diagnosis is far from straightforward.

Now, the Cooperative Research Centre for Autism Diagnosis (Autism CRC) and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) have joined forces to implement a national guideline for diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The system will improve the highly variable and often delayed diagnoses currently delivered across different state health systems.

This initiative comes at a time when authorities such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have recognised autism diagnosis in Australia as an issue in urgent need of attention. Earlier this month, the AMA announced that the speed of diagnosis is of primary concern. 

Over the course of the next year, Professor Andrew Whitehouse, Director of the Autism Research Team at the Telethon Kids Institute, will spearhead collaborative research efforts to establish a national guideline to be published by September 2017.

One of the primary aims of the guideline is to streamline the diagnostic process across Australia and thereby accelerate vital, early-stage diagnoses.

Tackling variability in autism diagnosis

In developing the new guideline, the Autism CRC and NDIA hope to address problems that are rooted as much in the state-run approach to the diagnostic process as they are in the nature of autism itself.

“We don’t know enough about the genetics and neuroscience of autism, so we diagnose based on behaviour,” says Whitehouse. “And the way we appraise the particular behaviours differs quite considerably across states.”

According to Whitehouse, some states may require only one medical health professional to carry out a diagnostic assessment, while others mandate that every patient be consulted by a series of interdisciplinary teams. The level of diagnostic training and tools of assessment also vary greatly across regions, and between rural and metropolitan areas.

These factors impact not only the diagnostic outcome, but also the cost and time involved in reaching a conclusion.

“The variability in how we appraise behaviour associated with autism in Australia has a major effect on the cost of an assessment and the waitlist involved,” says Whitehouse.

A recent Australian study suggested that in Australia, autism diagnosis occurs around three to four years later than recommended, with early treatment key to limiting the effects autism has on an individual’s life.

Given the lack of a standardised, transparent approach to autism diagnosis across Australia, Whitehouse believes some families feel like they have to seek out multiple opinions. Not only does that delay the diagnosis, but it also adds to the emotional and financial strain for families, says Whitehouse.

“In the end, a delay is a cost to the family, as well as the Commonwealth government.”

Working with families for families

Over the course of the next year, the research team plans to work with families, individuals on the spectrum, autism experts, doctors, and service providers to make sure that the national guideline addresses the key issues faced by families and individuals on the autism spectrum today.

Their goal is to create an environment where families and individuals on the autism spectrum of all ages feel that they can trust in the process and can expect equal procedures across the whole of Australia.

“The main focus is not just rigour, but what is feasible to administer on the ground and what is acceptable to families,” says Whitehouse.

Along with the publication itself, plans for distributing the national guideline include extensive training of doctors and medical staff, as well as awareness campaigns for families.

Accelerated access to treatment

The Autism CRC and NDIA hope that a national approach to tackling autism diagnosis will lead to a smoother and more efficient diagnostic process, accelerating access to treatment and effecting more equitable outcomes for everyone living with autism.

“The national guideline is an important way to get all children with autism off to the best start in life, so that every child is afforded equal opportunities,” says Whitehouse.

A successful implementation of the guidelines could also set an example for agencies handling other disabilities.

“With this project, we hope to demonstrate that nationally harmonised protocols in the area of childhood disability are possible, particularly through collaboration with Government agencies,” says Whitehouse.

– Iliana Grosse-Buening

Autism CRC aims to provide the national capacity to develop and deliver evidence-based outcomes through its unique collaboration with the autism community, research organisations, industry and government. Find out more here.

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Biobank speeds autism diagnosis

breast cancer

Breast cancer probe detects deadly cells

Featured image above: Dr Erik Shartner with the prototype optical fibre sensor, which can detect breast cancer during surgery. Credit: University of Adelaide

An optical fibre probe has been developed to detect breast cancer tissue during surgery.

Working with excised breast cancer tissue, researchers from the University of Adelaide developed the device to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy ones.

Project leader at the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) Dr Erik Schartner said the probe could reduce the need for follow-up surgery, which is currently required in up to 20 per cent of breast cancer cases.

“At the moment most of the soft tissue cancers use a similar method during surgery to identify whether they’ve gotten all the cancer out, and that method is very crude,” he says.

“They’ll get some radiology beforehand which tells them where the cancer should be, and the surgeon then will remove it to the best of their ability.

“But the conclusive measurements are done with pathology a couple of days or a couple of weeks after the surgery, so the patient is sown back up, thinks the cancer is removed and then they discover two weeks later with a call from the surgeon that they need to go through this whole traumatic process again.”

The probe allows more accurate measurements be taken during surgery, with the surgeon provided with information via an LED light.

Using a pH probe tip, a prototype sensor was able to distinguish cancerous and healthy cells with 90 per cent accuracy.

The research behind the probe, published today in Cancer Research, found pH was a useful tool to distinguish the two types of tissue because cancerous cells naturally produce more acid during growth.

Currently the probe is aimed for use solely for treating breast cancer, but there is some possibility for it to be used as both a diagnostic tool and during other removal surgeries.

“The method we’re using, which is basically measuring the pH of the tissue, actually looks to be common across virtually all cancer types,” Schartner says.

“We can actually see there’s some scope there for diagnostic application for things like thyroid cancer, or even melanoma, which is something we’re following up.

“The question is more about the application as to how useful it is during surgery, to be able to get this identification, and in some of the other soft tissue cancers it would be useful as well.”

Earlier this year, researchers from CNBP also developed a fibre optic probe,  which could be used to examine the effects of drug use on the brain.

Schartner said both probes were noteworthy because they were far thinner than previously developed models at only a few microns across.

“The neat thing we see about this one is that it’s a lot quicker than some of the other commercial offerings and also the actual sample size you can measure is much smaller, so you get better resolution,” he says.

Researchers on the probe hope to progress to clinical trials in the near future, with a tentative product launch date in the next three years.

Also in Adelaide, researchers at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute are developing tiny sensors that can detect the spread of cancer through the lymphatic system while a patient is having surgery to remove primary tumours, which could also dramatically reduce the need for follow up operations.

– Thomas Luke 

This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 29 November 2016. Read the original article here.

blockchain technology

Blockchain tech shaping spatial information

Blockchain technology is the innovation behind Bitcoin. It has the potential to disrupt many industries by making processes more democratic, secure, transparent and efficient, and is currently approaching the peak of its hype cycle.

In late October, the CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI) hosted a Student Day Solvathon, which focused on blockchains in spatial technology. Paul X. McCarthy from Online Gravity and Mark Staples from Data61 facilitated discussion and inspired 20 PhD students to think creatively about how blockchain technology could be applied.

The students divided into four teams with each team given the challenge to design an innovative use of blockchain tech in an application area relevant to current CRCSI research programs and initiatives. They created four initiatives:

Blockchain Technology in the Red Meat Supply Chain

This idea taps into the $15.8 billion red meat industry in Australia. With only 35% of cattle currently meeting the Meat Standard Australia (MSA) standard, the traceable open ledger capabilities of a block chain implementation could provide consumers, farmers and suppliers with greater confidence on the certification process. Increased uptake on MSA certification positively impacts the Australian economy as every 1% increase of certified meat equates to $40 million of additional returns.

Differing from traditional centralised database systems, the open ledger system requires the complete life history of a piece of meat to be well documented and made available across all players in the supply chain. Automated transaction verification techniques using location and timestamp from GNSS, RFID or DNA barcode information is added to the blockchain database when the cattle or meat is transported from one location to another. This not only optimises the supply chain, but also adds value to the quality of meat sold to the consumer. All this information will be able to be accessed from a smartphone, where a series of displays showing quality metrics of great interest to the consumer: an environmental score; a wellness score; a taste score; and other extra data that supports the purchase such as recommended or optimised recipe selections for that particular cut. 

Blockchain Technology in Health

Attacks on hospitals and civilian targets are clear violations of international law and an urgent problem in war zones that can be addressed by a new arrangement of existing technologies and organisations. A systematic solution to this could be one which provides transparent, decentralised, immutable, publicly available records of humanitarian activity used to visualise the location of verified humanitarian facilities.

The decentralised nature of a blockchain could allow untrusting involved parties to agree or trust the validity of information. Records can be immutable and transparent, so there would be traceability and increased accountability. If this platform was augmented with crowdsourced data, there could be continuous verification from multiple sources agreeing or converging on the location of a hospital. In essence, this would be decentralising and democratising humanitarian map data in conflict zones to support policy makers, governments, negotiators, experts in international relations and law (UN, WHO) and humanitarian organisations (MSF, Red Cross/Red Crescent).

Blockchain Technology in Land Administration and Cadastre

A new distributed database maintaining transactions is disruptive to many industries. It is producing a time stamped auditing information record. Land administration title offices maintain registries, ownerships, boundaries of private and public properties and keep records of changes to the properties as they happen.

These changes affect mortgages, restrictions, leases and right of ways. Blockchain technology has a huge potential in land administration contexts as governments privatise land registries, or want to publish trusted copy for all stakeholders without delays. Blockchain protocols in land administration offer complete historical transaction of all land title transactions, reducing dependency on central cadastral databases and can minimise the risk of fraud in data manipulation by a single user. In many parts of the world traditional registry and cadastral systems have not been sustainable in this advanced technological world. Urbanisation is at peak and land parcels are increasing day by day and discrepancies still exist whether it is in the developed or developing world.

Blockchain protocol in land registries could have many benefits like cost reduction, smart contracts, efficiency, transparency and long term investment. 

Blockchain Technology for Road Tolling

Alternate fuel sources will require changes in how road user charges are calculated and collected. Deriving charges that are consistent across carbon based fuels, electric vehicles, and other alternatives (such as hydrogen fuel cells) may prove difficult.

Alongside the issue of equitable pricing is the well-known problem that continued increases in the number of road users will lead to increased traffic congestion. However, the emergence of driverless vehicles presents a possible solution to both these problems that can be implemented using the executable contracts that blockchains offer.

Currencies based on blockchain technology allow value to be held in escrow until certain conditions are met. Once these requirements are satisfied the value is distributed to the opposing party (or parties). This occurs based on how the contract is programmed into the blockchain and as such there is no need for a “middleman” (like a bank) or the fee they charge for providing this service.

Our solution is a market based system where travel on a particular road at a particular time is booked in advance (based on the origin and destination of the user). Before departing on the journey the user has certainty as to how much the journey will cost as well as its duration (they will not be inconvenienced by excessive traffic congestion).

This means all space on the road, tracked through time, is allocated. A non-urgent journey may take a less direct route in order to avoid popular roads and reduce the amount paid in road user charges. Alternatively, an urgent journey can be made via the most direct route at a higher price. Because journeys may utilise roads owned by various parties, the planning system will program the appropriate distribution of value into the executable contract. When the conditions are met (i.e. the journey is completed) the contract is executed within the blockchain and the transfer of value from the user to the road owners represents an alternative to traditional road user charges.

Next Steps

The CRCSI is now developing a one to two-year strategy for blockchain research in spatial technology. Seizing the early initiative with blockchain technology will be important for the spatial sector to lead activities in this rapidly growing research and development area.

To find out more, visit the CRCSI website or contact Nathan Quadros at nquadros@crcsi.com.au

– Dr Nathan Quadros, CRCSI Education Manager

This article was first published by the CRCSI on 18 November 2016. Read the original article here.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy

FDA approves Duchenne muscular dystrophy drug

Video above: Murdoch University researchers Steve Wilton and Sue Fletcher discuss their new drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The powerful US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light to a drug developed by Western Australia researchers Sue Fletcher and Steve Wilton for treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The Murdoch University scientists developed an innovative treatment to help sufferers of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a crippling muscle-wasting disease that affects about one in 3500 boys worldwide.

The FDA decision is a huge win for the global pharma company Sarepta Therapeutics, which has developed the drug under the name Eteplirsen.

In their breakthrough research, Fletcher and Wilton had devised a way to bypass the faulty gene responsible for the disease, using a technique called exon skipping.

The FDA’s approval follows an emotional campaign by sufferers, their families, and supporters of Eteplirsen.

Earlier this year, some 40 sufferers in wheelchairs and their families flew to Washington from around the US, and from as far as the UK, to show their faith in the treatment after authorities questioned aspects of the drug’s clinical trial.

Fletcher’s and Wilton’s innovative discovery had already won the 2012 WA Innovator of the Year Award.

In 2013, the researchers, then with UWA, signed a multi-million dollar deal with Sarepta to develop Eteplirsen.

Under the deal, they would get up to US$7.1 million in upfront and milestone payments, as well as royalties on the net sales of all medicines developed and approved.

– Tony Malkovic 

This article was first published by Science Network Western Australia on 21 September 2016. Read the original article here. 

Read next: CtX forges $730 m deal for new cancer drug. A promising new cancer drug, developed in Australia by the Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx), has been licensed to US pharmaceutical company Merck in a deal worth $730 million.

birth defects

Birth defects: a data discovery

Professor Fiona Stanley is well known for her work in using biostatistics to research the causes and prevention of birth defects, including establishing the WA Maternal and Child Health Research Database in 1977.

In 1989 Professor Stanley and colleague Professor Carol Bower used another database, the WA birth defects register, to source subjects for a study of neural tube defects (NTDs). The neural tube is what forms the brain and spine in a baby. Development issues can lead to common but incurable birth defects  such as spina bifida where the backbone does not close over the spinal cord properly.

The researchers measured the folate intake of 308 mothers of children born with NTDs, other defects, and no defects. They discovered that mothers who take the vitamin folate during pregnancy are less likely to have babies with NTDs. Their data contributed to worldwide research that found folate can reduce the likelihood of NTDs by 70%.

After the discovery Professor Stanley established the Telethon Kids Institute where she continued to research this topic alongside Professor Bower. Together they worked on education campaigns to encourage pregnant women to take folate supplements.

Their great success came in 2009 when the Australian government implemented mandatory folic acid fortification of flour. The need for such legislation is now recognised by the World Health Organisation.

A 2016 review conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that since the flour fortification program’s introduction, levels of NTDs have dropped by 14.4%.

– Cherese Sonkkila

This article was first published by the Australian National Data Service on 12 September 2016. Read the original article here.

Read next: Big data, big business.  Whether it’s using pigeons to help monitor air quality in London or designing umbrellas that can predict if it will rain, information is becoming a must-have asset for innovative businesses.

funding reform

Changing the way we fund research

Attracting and keeping talented women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) fields is not just a matter of equality for the sake of equality. While it is important – young girls and women should have the same opportunities as men – great advances cannot be made without the collective diversity of thinking that both women and men bring to the table.

I feel I have been quite fortunate in my career to date. After my PhD, I left Australia to undertake a postdoc at Harvard with one child – four years later I returned with three.  While my productivity during the postdoc could be argued as lower than average, I was in hindsight insulated from ‘reality’ through the support of an amazing team and a major National Institutes of Health Program Grant.

Returning to Australia, I realised that without real recognition of career disruptions in an individual’s research track record, people like me would be considered ‘uncompetitive’. While this was not the only reason I left research, these hurdles did contribute to identifying my new career path.

While working at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) I had the privilege of managing funding schemes worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support great health and medical researchers. More importantly, I was able to establish the Women in Health Science Committee.

Through the work of this committee we were able to implement a number of strategies that aimed to both acknowledge the difficulties women face in the field of research, and secondly to address issues around the retention and progression of women in the field. This included consideration of career disruptions, part-time opportunities and making institutions who received NHMRC funds take stock of their gender equity policies and practices. While great advances have been made, there is still so much more that needs to be done and it cannot rely solely on the shoulders of funding agencies.


“If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.”


Recently I have joined the Academy of Science to work with the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) team.  SAGE is a national accreditation program that recognises, promotes and rewards excellence in advancing gender equality and diversity in STEMM in the higher education system.

While it is in its early days, I hope that SAGE or a similar accreditation model becomes a permanent feature of the sector and that funding agencies continue to reform practices to encourage women to be recognised for their efforts. We need many talented and innovative brains working in the STEMM fields.

If we don’t focus on attracting and retaining bright and intelligent women we will continue to lose the capacity to make real progress in society through poor management of this valuable resource.

Dr Saraid Billiards

Director of the Research Grants team at the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

Read next: Jacinta Duncan, Director of the Gene Technology Access Centre, says industry-school partnerships are key to a gender balanced STEM workplace.

People and careers: Meet women who’ve paved brilliant careers in STEM here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com.

Spread the word: Help Australian women achieve successful careers in STEM! Share this piece on funding reforms using the social media buttons below.

More Thought Leaders: Click here to go back to the Thought Leadership Series homepage, or start reading the Graduate Futures Thought Leadership Series here.

peanut

Peanut genome key to non-allergenic products

Featured image above: The peanut (Arachis hypogaea L.) is an important global food source and a staple crop grown in more than 100 countries, with approximately 42 million tonnes produced every year. Credit: ICRISAT

In a world first, under the leadership of University of Western Australia Winthrop Professor Rajeev Varshney, a global team sequenced and identified 50,324 genes in an ancestor of the cultivated peanut, Arachis duranensis.

They decoded the peanut DNA to gain an insight into the legume’s evolution and identify opportunities for using its genetic variability.

Importantly, the researchers have isolated 21 allergen genes, that, when altered, may be able to prevent an allergic response in humans.

The last decade has seen an alarming rise in peanut allergies with almost three in every 100 Australian children suffering, and only 20 per cent growing out of the allergy.

The allergic reaction of peanuts is caused by specific proteins in its seeds, according to Varshney who is also the Research Program Director at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

“These 21 characterised genes will be useful in breeding to select the superior varieties in the laboratory such as ones that are non-allergenic,” Varshney says.

They also identified additional genes that would help increase crop productivity and improve peanut nutritional value by altering oil biosynthesis and protein content.

Peanuts or groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L.) are an important global food source and are a staple crop grown in more than 100 countries, with approximately 42 million tonnes produced every year.

Originating in South America, humans have cultivated peanuts for more than 7,600 years.

With a very high seed oil content of 45–56 per cent, peanut oil contains nearly half of the 13 essential vitamins and 35 per cent of the essential minerals.

Peanuts are also associated with several human health benefits, and have been found to improve cardiovascular health, reduce the risk of certain cancers, and control blood sugar levels.

“This genome sequence has helped to identify genes related to resistance to different diseases, tolerance to abiotic stresses and yield-related traits,” Varshney says.

“By using this ’molecular breeding’ approach, we can also accelerate the breeding process, and generate superior varieties in 3–5 years compared to traditional breeding that takes 6–10 years.”

Varshney says genomics-assisted breeding is a non-GMO or ‘non-transgenic’ approach.

“This is basically a simple breeding process that uses the molecular markers/genes to select the lines in the breeding, and farmers have been growing such varieties for many crops all around the world,” Varshney says.

– Teresa Belcher

This article was first published by Science Network Western Australia  on 25 August 2016. Read the original article here.

cochlear implant

Cochlear implant electrodes improve hearing

Promising results have been reported from a world-first study of cochlear implant electrodes designed to stimulate hearing nerves and slowly release drugs into the inner ear.

HEARing Cooperative Research Centre (HEARing CRC) CEO Professor Robert Cowan said research using a cochlear implant electrode array that slowly releases anti-inflammatory drugs into the cochlear following implantation could lead to new benefits for cochlear implant users.

“The beauty of this approach is that it is based on use of the standard cochlear implant electrode array inserted into the inner ear that delivers sound sensations to the brain via the electrical stimulation of hearing nerve cells,” says Cowan. 

“The cochlear implant electrode array used in the research study was modified to slowly release a cortico-steroid after implantation.  This drug is intended to reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response.”

After completing extensive biosafety studies, HEARing CRC researchers progressed to a study of the experimental electrode in ten adult patients, eight at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne (RVEEH) and two at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children – Sydney Cochlear Implant Clinic (SCIC). 

 ENT surgeons Professor Rob Briggs and Professor Catherine Birman reported no compromise in surgical insertion characteristics with the experimental array.

Initial results confirm lower electrical impedance levels for the drug-eluting array patients, as compared with control groups from both clinics.  Impedance levels continue to remain lower 12 months post-implantation. 

“The suppression of the inflammatory reaction in the cochlear following electrode insertion is likely responsible for these lower impedance levels and may potentially contribute to preservation of an implant user’s residual hearing abilities when combined with slimmer electrode designs and newer surgical techniques,” Cowan explains. 

“Hearing preservation is important, as many candidates for cochlear implants have significant residual acoustic hearing, and want to be assured that they can use their residual acoustic hearing together with their cochlear implants.”

“Our hope is that this breakthrough will result in more people now considering cochlear implants as a viable way to manage their hearing loss”.

This drug-eluting electrode research has been made possible through the collaboration of Cochlear, RVEEH, and RIDBC-SCIC as members of the HEARing CRC, supported through the Commonwealth Governments CRC Programme.

“The HEARing CRC collaboration has contributed to commercial cochlear implant technologies that are now in world-wide use, as well as fitting technologies for both cochlear implants and hearing aids, helping to maintain Australia’s preeminent international standing in hearing research and service delivery,”  says Cowan. 

This article first appeared as a media release from the HEARing Cooperative Research Centre on 24 August 2016.

funding cancer research

Cancer research investment boost

Featured image above: Cancer research at the Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre has received a funding boost. Credit: CTx

The Chief Executive of the Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre (CTx), Dr Warwick Tong, announced last week that a majority of its current partners have chosen to reinvest their share of the recent cash distribution from CTx back into the organisation.

In January 2016 CTx licensed its PRMT5 Project to MSD (known as Merck in the US and Canada) in a landmark deal and received over $14 million dollars as its share of the signature payment. Novel drugs arising from the project will be developed and commercialised by Merck. Potential future milestone payments and royalties will also be shared within the partnership.

“Our 2013 application to the Department of Industry CRC Programme outlined the intent to actively secure reinvestment of funds from any commercialisation success back into our cancer drug development activities”, said Tong. “To have this commitment from our partners is the validation and support we wanted.

“The more than seven million dollars will boost our ability to deliver new cancer drugs for adults and children”.

“CTx has made great use of its partnership network to deliver this project,” said Professor Grant McArthur Chair of the CTx Scientific Advisory Board. “The reinvestment is a very positive recognition by the partners that CTx will continue to provide benefits for patients and strengthen translational cancer research in Australia”.

This article was first published by the Cancer Therapeutics Cooperative Research Centre on 29 June 2016. Read the original article here.

To read more articles on research funding, visit:

$22.6 million research funding – A round of applications is expected to open in August for 11 newly funded Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) projects.

Australian research funding infographic – The latest OECD figures reveal how Australia’s science and research funding compares with other countries.

bionic spine

Brain-powered bionic spine

Featured image above: Strentrode. Credit: University of Melbourne

A few years ago, Australian neurology resident Dr Thomas Oxley set out to design a device that uses brain waves to power prosthetic limbs. Today, Oxley’s revolutionary invention is about to enter human trials, giving hope that millions of people paralysed by injury or stroke will soon be able to walk again.

Oxley’s futuristic device – a tiny stent-electrode or ‘stentrode’ –  also promises to predict and halt epileptic seizures and assist people with a range of conditions, from motor neurone and Parkinson’s diseases to compulsive disorders and depression.

In a nutshell, the matchstick-sized gadget will be inserted, without invasive surgery, into a blood vessel next to the brain’s motor cortex. From there it will detect and translate neural activity, such as the intention to walk, and send commands wirelessly to exoskeleton legs.

Detect, translate, transmit and walk. That’s what scientists call brain-machine interface, and it begins with straightforward day surgery to thread the stent up the groin to the brain.

Trials with sheep, published in February 2016 in Nature Biotechnology, revealed that the animals were fine. They were walking and eating within an hour, and had no side effects.

If all goes according to plan following human trials in 2017, Oxley predicts the stentrode could be on the market by the early 2020s.

“We’ve been able to create the world’s first minimally invasive brain recording device that is implanted without high-risk open brain surgery,” says Oxley.

bionic spine
Strentrode diagram. Credit: University of Melbourne

The road to commercialisation

Oxley is in New York to do a two-year fellowship in cerebral angiography at Mount Sinai Hospital, a specialty which employs non-invasive procedures to visualise blood vessels in the brain. It’s a skill directly related to his work in vascular bionics, exploiting the body’s blood vessels and veins for technologically enhanced therapeutic ends.

Remarkably, Oxley co-invented the stentrode while he was a Melbourne University doctoral student, along with MU collaborator Dr Nicholas Opie, a biomechanical engineer.

In 2012 the pair co-founded a startup company called SmartStent Pty Ltd  to refine and prepare the stentrode for market.

Their goal: commercialise what promises to be one of the world’s most important medical inventions.

After building hundreds of stentrode prototypes, the next step is testing the technology with people. “We’re trying to raise A$4 million for the first human trials at Royal Melbourne Hospital,” Oxley notes. “We’re hoping to begin in late 2017.”

Given the life-changing and commercial potential of the stentrode, it’s little wonder that SmartStent moved to Silicon Valley in April 2016. There, Oxley, Opie and cardiologist Rahul Sharma, with Cedars-Sinai Health System in Los Angeles, established Synchron Inc. as their new corporate headquarters. SmartStent remains the Australian subsidiary.

Clearly, Oxley is a man on the move. Given his family tree, it was inevitable. While he was born in Melbourne, until age nine Oxley lived in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father Alan, a former diplomat, was Australia’s Ambassador for Trade. Then it was on to New York when his dad became Australian Ambassador to the General Agreement in Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor of the World Trade Organization.

The Oxley family is littered with creative people. Oxley has two older sisters. Harriet is a theatre set and costume designer, and Anna is in banking. His mother Sandra completed a Masters in computing science at Columbia University while Alan was at the GATT.

So where did Oxley’s interest in the brain come from? In his early teens Oxley had developed “a bit of an obsession with the brain and consciousness”.

“Dad was intellectually challenging. I figured it would be a smarter move to become interested in areas he didn’t understand,” Oxley replies.

Solving the mysteries of the brain

Medicine seemed a good choice for a kid keen to reverse engineer the brain to solve the mysteries of human consciousness. So Oxley went off to Monash Medical School in Melbourne, finishing in 2006. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Melbourne’s The Alfred Hospital in 2009.

“Then I took a year off to go travelling,” recalls Oxley, who didn’t begin his neurology residency until 2011. “I was travelling and intellectually exploring.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was on his ‘to visit’ list. DARPA is an arm of the US Department of Defense. Located in Arlington, Virginia, the agency is responsible for developing emerging military technologies, including biotechnology.

“I’d been reading about their prosthetic limb work for a couple of years,” says Oxley, who got in touch with neurologist Colonel Geoffrey Ling, director of DARPA’s Biotechnologies Office.

After an initial chat, Ling was sufficiently impressed to invite his visitor to develop what Oxley claims became a “pretty blue sky, out there” proposal.

The result? Oxley left Virginia with a promise of US$1.3 million and instructions to put a team together to create and test his device.

“After all that excitement, I came home and had to start my neurology residency. It was a steep learning curve,” says Oxley, who had to tread carefully as a junior resident with potentially large research funding coming in.

Fortunately, Oxley’s PhD supervisor and mentor, Professor Terry O’Brien, was Oxley’s academic champion. He helped negotiate the occasionally challenging politics and opened doors to the range of experts Oxley needed to set up the DARPA-inspired Vascular Bionics Laboratory  at Melbourne University. The two men even leveraged DARPA’s investment into over A$4 million, with grants from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council and other Australian bodies.

Oxley completed his residency in 2013, and submitted his doctorate in February 2016. But the rest isn’t history. There’s a stentrode to trial and commercialise. An invention which O’Brien calls the ‘Holy Grail’ of bionics.

– Leigh Dayton

This article was first published by Australian Unlimited on 02 May 2016. Read the original article here.

innovation in western australia

Innovation in Western Australia

Science is fundamental for our future social and economic wellbeing.

In Western Australia we’re focusing on areas where we have natural advantages, and an appropriate base of research and industrial capacity. Western Australia’s Science Statement, released by Premier Barnett in April 2015, represents a capability audit of relevant research and engagement expertise in our universities, research institutes, State Government agencies and other organisations. Mining and energy, together with agriculture, are traditional powerhouses, but the science priorities also reflect the globally significant and growing capabilities in medicine and health, biodiversity and marine science, and radio astronomy. It’s a great place to begin exciting new collaborations.

The Science Statement has also helped to align efforts across research organisations and industry. For instance, in 2015 an industry-led “Marine Science Blueprint 2050” was released, followed by the Premier commissioning a roundtable of key leaders from industry, Government, academia and community to develop a long-term collaborative research strategy. These meetings highlighted critical areas of common interest such as decommissioning, marine noise, community engagement and sharing databases.


“Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes.”


Science, innovation and collaboration are integral to many successful businesses in Western Australia. In the medical field, a range of technological innovations have broadened the economy and created new jobs. Some of these success stories include Phylogica, Admedus, Orthocell, iCeutica, Dimerix, Epichem and Proteomics International. Another example in this space is the Phase I clinical trial facility, Linear Clinical Research, which was established with support from the State Government – 75% of the trials conducted to date come from big pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the USA.

Opportunities abound for science and industry to work together to translate research into practical, or commercial, outcomes. For example, the field of big data analytics is rapidly permeating many sectors. Perth’s Pawsey Centre, the largest public research supercomputer in the southern hemisphere, processes torrents of data delivered by many sources, including radioastronomy as the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, is being developed in outback WA. In addition, local company DownUnder GeoSolutions has a supercomputer five times the size of Pawsey for massive geophysical analyses. In such a rich data environment, exciting new initiatives like the CISCO’s Internet of Everything Innovation Centre, in partnership with Woodside, is helping to drive innovation and growth.

Leading players in the resources and energy sector are also taking innovative approaches to enhance efficiency and productivity. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton use remote-controlled driverless trucks, and autonomous trains, to move iron ore in the Pilbara. Woodside has an automated offshore facility, while Shell is developing its Prelude Floating Liquefied Natural Gas facility soon to be deployed off the northwest coast. Excitingly, 3 emerging companies (Carnegie, Bombora and Protean) are making waves by harnessing the power of the ocean to generate energy.

This high-tech, innovative environment is complemented by a rapidly burgeoning start-up ecosystem. In this vibrant sector, Unearthed runs events, competitions and accelerators to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in the resources space. Spacecubed provides fabulous co-working space for young entrepreneurs, including the recently launched FLUX for innovators in the resource sector. The online graphic design business Canva, established by two youthful Western Australians epitomises what entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude can achieve. In this amazingly interconnected world, the sky’s the limit.

Professor Peter Klinken

Chief Scientist of Western Australia

Read next: Professor Barney Glover, Vice-Chancellor and President of Western Sydney University and Dr Andy Marks, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Strategy and Policy) of Western Sydney University on Making innovation work.

Spread the word: Help to grow Australia’s innovation knowhow! Share this piece using the social media buttons below.

Be part of the conversation: Share your ideas on innovating Australia in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

type-1 diabetes

Microcapsules for type-1 diabetes

Curtin University researchers are a step closer to establishing a way for people with type-1 diabetes to introduce insulin into the body without the need for injections, through the development of a unique microcapsule.

People with type-1 diabetes, a condition where the immune system destroys cells in the pancreas, generally have to inject themselves with insulin daily and test glucose levels multiple times a day.

Dr Hani Al-Salami from Curtin’s School of Pharmacy is leading the collaborative project using cutting-edge microencapsulation technologies to design and test whether microcapsules are a viable alternative treatment for people with type-1 diabetes.

“Since 1921, injecting insulin into muscle or fat tissue has been the only treatment option for patients with type-1 diabetes,” Al-Salami says.

“The ideal way to treat the illness, however, would be to have something, like a microcapsule, that stays in the body and works long-term to treat the uncontrolled blood glucose associated with diabetes.”

The microcapsule contains pancreatic cells which can be implanted in the body and deliver insulin to the blood stream.

“We hope the microcapsules might complement or even replace the use of insulin in the long-term, but we are still a way off. Still, the progress is encouraging and quite positive for people with type-1 diabetes,” Al-Salami says.

Researchers say the biggest challenge in the project to date has been creating a microcapsule that could carry the cells safely, for an extended period of time, without causing an unwanted reaction by the body such as inflammation or graft failure.

“We are currently carrying out multiple analyses examining various formulations and microencapsulating methods, in order to ascertain optimum engineered microcapsules capable of supporting cell survival and functionality,” Al-Salami says.

The research was conducted in partnership with the University of Western Australia. Click here to read the scientific paper, published in Biotechnology Progress.

– Susanna Wolz

This article was first published by Curtin University. Read the original media release here.

 

autism diagnosis

Biobank speeds autism diagnosis

The Autism CRC is building Australia’s first Autism Biobank, with the aim of diagnosing autism earlier and more accurately using genetic markers. Identifying children at high risk of developing autism at 12 months of age was “a bit of a holy grail”, says Telethon Kids Institute’s head of autism research Professor Andrew Whitehouse, who will be leading the Biobank. Researchers think the period between 12–24 months of age is “a key moment” in brain development, he adds.

Autism Diagnosis
Professor Andrew Whitehouse, Head of the Developmental Disorders Research Group at the Telethon Kids Institute

As with other neurodevelopmental disorders, a diagnosis of autism is based on certain behaviours, but these only begin to manifest at a diagnosable level between the ages of two and five. Whitehouse says while there are great opportunities for therapy at these ages, researchers believe an earlier diagnosis will make the therapy programs more effective. Some 12-month-old children already exhibit behaviours associated with the risk of developing autism, for example not responding to their name, but currently doctors can’t conclusively diagnose autism at this early age.

“If we can start our therapies at 12 months, we firmly believe they’ll be more effective and we can help more kids reach their full potential,” says Whitehouse.

The biology of autism varies greatly between individuals, and it appears a combination of environmental factors and genes are involved – up to 100 genes may play a role in its development. Studying large groups of people is the only way to get a full understanding of autism and potentially identify genes of importance.

To do this, the Biobank collects DNA samples from 1200 families with a history of autism – children with autism aged 2–17 years old, who are recruited through therapy service providers, and their parents – as well as samples from control families who do not have a history of autism.

autism diagnosis
DNA samples are taken at the Telethon Kids Institute and sent to the ABB Wesley Medical Research Tissue Bank to be analysed for genetic biomarkers. Credit: Telethon Kids Institute

The samples are then shipped to the ABB Wesley Medical Research Tissue Bank in Brisbane for the Biobank’s creation. Here, they are analysed for genetic biomarkers using genome wide sequencing – determining DNA sequences at various points along the genome that are known to be important in human development. Whitehouse says they are also planning to conduct metabolomic and microbiomic analyses on urine and faeces.

“It’s the biggest research effort into autism ever conducted in Australia,” he says.

The goal is to use the results to develop a genetic test that can be conducted with 12-month-old children who are showing signs of autism. The samples will also be stored at the Biobank for future research.

The aim is to expand internationally, so that researchers can exchange data with teams around the globe who are doing similar work, thus increasing the sample size.

– Laura Boness

If your child has been diagnosed with autism and you would like to find out about participating in the Autism CRC Biobank, click here.

www.autismcrc.com.au

Smart Contact Lens

Smart Contact Lens

The University of Adelaide in South Australia worked closely with RMIT University to develop small hi-tech lenses to filter harmful optical radiation without distorting vision.

Dr Withawat Withayachumnankul from the University of Adelaide helped conceive the idea and says the potential applications of the technology included creating new high-performance devices that connect to the internet.

“With advanced techniques to control the properties of surfaces, we can dynamically control their filter properties, which allow us to potentially create devices for high data rate optical communication or smart contact lenses,” he says.

“There is also the potential for it to have Wi-Fi access points and connection to external devices.”

The small lenses could also be used to gather and transmit information on a small display.

While there are numerous possible applications of the device, Withayachumnankul says the original purpose of the lens was an alternative to radiation protective goggles.

“We used a stretchable material called PDMS (Polydimethylsiloxane) and put some nano-material structures inside that layer which interacts with light,” he says.

“The functionality of the device is that the lens filters the light while maintaining a fully transparent structure, and can protect the eyes from radiation.”

Tiny artificial crystals termed “dielectric resonators” were used to help manipulate the waves of light.

The resonators are a fraction of the wavelength of light (100–500 nanometres) and are 500 times thinner than human hair.

“The current challenge is that the dielectric resonators only work for specific colours, but with our flexible surface we can adjust the operation range simply by stretching it,” Withayachumnankul says.

The materials used to make the lens have proven to be biocompatible and do not create any irritation to the eyes, making the device safe to wear.

Findings of the research were published in leading nano-science journal ACS Nano and were undertaken at RMIT’s Micro Nano Research Facility.

The discovery comes after scientists from the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute this month successfully completed “proof of concept” research on a polymer film coating that conducts electricity on a contact lens, with the potential to build miniature electrical circuits that are safe to be worn by a person.

– Caleb Radford

This article was first published by The Lead on 19 February 2016. Read the original article here.

Smart ASD detection tool

Smart ASD detection tool

An estimated one in 50 children have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Research from La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) shows that the majority of these children are not diagnosed until they are four years old, more than two years after they can be reliably diagnosed and receive life-changing intervention.

The technique underlying ASDetect has been used over the past decade by hundreds of maternal and child health nurses in Australia, as well as early childhood professionals around the world. It has proven to be more than seven times more accurate than the next best tool in the early identification of autism.

Salesforce developed the ASDetect app on a pro bono basis as part of the company’s 1-1-1 integrated philanthropy model, where the company donates 1% of its employee’s time, its products and its equity to support the not-for-profit sector. A team of Salesforce engineers, designers and developers volunteered their time to build the app on the Salesforce platform.

The app uses questions drawn from breakthrough research by La Trobe’s Dr Josephine Barbaro. It gives parents access to video footage from actual clinical assessments and clearly demonstrates the context and expected key behaviours of children at each age.

“ASDetect is an empowering tool for parents who may feel their children are developing differently than expected and are looking for answers. The new ASDetect app is an ideal way to share proven techniques with thousands of parents,” says Barbaro.

Through a series of videos and questions, ASDetect guides parents through the identification of potential “red flag” signs of ASD. These “red flags” can be raised when young children repeatedly do not:

  • make consistent eye contact;
  • share smiles;
  • show their toys to others;
  • play social games;
  • point to indicate interest;
  • respond when their name is called.
Smart ASD Detection Tool
Screenshot of ASDetect app being used by Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre.

“All typically developing infants are motivated to be social, look at other people’s faces, learn from them and copy. Children with ASD are not doing this – and we can now accurately identify this at a much younger age and take action, with the help of parents,” says Barbaro.

The app combines Barbaro’s assessment questions with videos demonstrating the ‘red flag’ behaviours critical in determining the likelihood of ASD in children as young as 12 months. Parents view two videos: one showing a child with ASD, the other showing a typically developing child. Parents then answer questions regarding their own child. The information entered by the parents is automatically sent to OTARC’s database, which also runs on the Salesforce platform, where analysis of individual results is completed. Parents are then sent information via a notification through the app, with advice as to whether they should seek professional help. As ASD can emerge over time, ASDetect includes assessments for children aged 12, 18 and 24 months.

“This is not a replacement for professional assessment; however ASDetect will provide parents with an indication as to whether they should seek a professional opinion from a doctor at a time when intervention will have the biggest impact,” says Barbaro.

Dan Bognar, Senior Vice President, Salesforce APAC says: “The ASDetect app is a great example of leveraging the power of the Salesforce platform to improve the capabilities of health providers and treatment for individuals. Being able to deploy on a global scale means that organisations like OTARC can make a significant impact on society.”

“The development of ASDetect highlights our ethos of giving back as well as our commitment to improving the local communities we operate in. It has been incredibly rewarding for everyone involved, and we look forward to seeing the results of this important initiative,” says Bognar.

Watch ASDetect in action:

This information was first shared in a press release by La Trobe University on 14 February 2016. Read the press release here

Indigenous eye care

New vision for Indigenous eye care

Health professionals looking to bridge the gap in eye care for Indigenous communities have designed a new Eye & Vision Care Toolkit.

The toolkit, from the Vision Collaborative Research Centre and the Brien Holden Vision Institute, equips medical practitioners with a set of practical and scalable resources for improved eye health.

Eye problems in Indigenous communities are far higher than non-Indigenous people: rates of blindness in general are six times higher and diabetes-related blindness are 14 times higher.

Furthermore, the National Indigenous Eye Health Survey indicates 94% of vision loss is preventable or treatable.

Remoteness, cultural differences and follow through on health issues from diagnosis to treatment are persistent barriers, says Selina Madeleine, Global Communications Manager of the Brien Holden Vision Institute.

The Indigenous eye care toolkit addresses these identified gaps in the system by allowing health workers to assess current health care practices, and includes referral flowcharts and information that can be sent electronically, as well as eye testing kits.

The toolkit is also made with consideration of Indigenous community perspectives, says Madeleine.

“I don’t think there’s anything quite like this out there, specifically targeting improved eye care outcomes within the Indigenous population,” she adds.

The kit has been used for five years across NSW and the Northern Territory and measurements over the last two years show an increase in optometry examinations from 51% to 97% and in ophthalmology services from 28% to 93%.

Follow through from use of the Indigenous eye care toolkit has also jumped, with the proportion of referred individuals with diabetic retinopathy who saw an ophthalmologist up from 25% to 54%, and those referred for cataracts and who received surgery up from just 3% to 32%.

More funding needed

The toolkit is now being disseminated to hundreds of other health care workers in these states and Madeleine says the Institute plans to role it out further.

“We would like to role this out in other states across Australia because it has been so successful in the places we’ve used it so far.”

Madeline says a lack of funding is all that is preventing the widespread adoption of the toolkit elsewhere.

Guy Fenton

Computer vision saves lives

Computer vision saves lives

It is one of the last areas of pathology testing to be automated: diagnosing which strain of bacteria is contained in potentially infected samples such as urine, sputum, wound swabs and fecal samples.

And doing it faster could save lives, allowing more rapid diagnosis of infections and early choice of the right line of treatment.

South Australian company LBT Innovations Ltd has worked with the University of Adelaide to develop an automated tool for diagnosing infections. Known as APAS – Automated Plate Assessment System – the technology incorporates computer vision to hasten the time required to detect infections in samples from patients.

“APAS accurately captures, reads and interprets bacterial cultures significantly faster than a trained scientist,” says LBT Innovations CEO Lusia Guthrie.

“Once incorporated into pathology services, we anticipate this technology will create significant cost reductions and save lives.”

After conducting clinical trials of APAS with more than 10,000 patient samples in Australia and USA, LBT Innovations is submitting the technology to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval as a diagnostic tool.

Improving old technology

Although over 130 years old, the use of gel plates to grow and identify bacteria still sits at the heart of modern diagnostic services.

For example, if you have a suspected urinary tract infection, a small sample of your urine will be smeared over a plate of solid gel. After incubation, a scientist examines the plate to classify any bacteria that have grown. Appropriate drug treatment can then be selected. The whole process takes 3–4 days, sometimes up to an entire week.

“Although around 70% of cultured plates are actually negative for bacteria, it typically takes a whole shift of human workers to sort through which ones need further analysis,” Guthrie says.

“APAS will significantly reduce this sample processing time.”

Cutting time from the analytical process will have an impact through reducing labour costs, allowing patients shorter lengths of stay in hospitals and freeing up microbiologists to focus on positive samples that require immediate specialist attention.

“We’re currently conducting market research to calculate the impact of this in dollar terms,” says Guthrie.

Industry and university collaboration

LBT Innovations worked with University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Visual Technologies (ACVT) to develop the plate reading capability in APAS.

“APAS consists of an image capture system linked to a computer loaded with algorithms that allow the plates to be categorised based on their appearance,” explains Professor Anton Van Den Hengel, Director at ACVT.

“One of the keys to successfully developing this technology has been to embed our engineer Rhys Hill within the LBT Innovations offices for the duration of the project.”

“With clear communication and a strong working relationship, it’s been a collaborative process of technology development,” says Van Den Hengel.

The intellectual property associated with APAS is fully owned by LBT Innovations.

Market for better, faster diagnostics

The latest clinical tests show that APAS algorithms are working for diagnosis of urinary cultures, with over 98% accuracy in detecting bacterial growth on plates.

Urinary tract infections are estimated to affect 150 million people each year globally, and the societal costs – including health care and time missed from work – are approximately US$3.5 billion per year in the USA alone.

Other samples that require plate culture and analysis for diagnosis include stool (bowel infections), sputum (respiratory tract infections), wound swabs (skin and tissue infections) and blood (septicaemia).

LBT Innovations plans to expand APAS testing for approval in all these fields. The company estimates there are 27,000 laboratories globally that can immediately benefit from APAS. The largest of these facilities process about 4000 plate samples every day.

“Laboratories are under pressure to process more samples and to do it faster, despite limits on budgets and human resources,” explains Guthrie.

“Once it’s approved, we plan to launch APAS in Australia and then roll it out into the USA, Canada, UK and Europe.”

LBT Innovations created a joint venture with German engineering company Hettich AG to fully develop commercial products that incorporate APAS technology with sophisticated plate-handling robotics.

– Sarah Keenihan

Bioinformatician on the move

Bioinformatician on the move

In 2001, the Human Genome Project, an international research project whose goal was to determine the sequence of genes that make up a human being, successfully mapped the human genome – the set of genetic instructions, like a recipe book, that contains all the information needed to assemble and form a person.

Thousands of individual human genomes have now been mapped, generating a vast amount of information on the structure and function of genes and revealing a highly complex and intricate genetic landscape that has led to new insights in biology, human evolution and the diagnosis of genetic disorders, such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

Bioinformatician on the move

Harriet Dashnow, a PhD student in the Bioinformatics Group at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) in Melbourne, is one of the intrepid explorers navigating this terrain. Her research is seeking to understand how variations in the location and pattern of specific genes can lead to genetic disorders.

“One of the problems is that we’re very good at understanding simple mutations inside genes,” explains Dashnow, “but it’s clear that there are lots of different kinds of variation we don’t understand, and we have a lot of trouble testing for. So the focus of my PhD is to look at a particular type of variation called a microsatellite or a short tandem repeat.”

Short tandem repeats (STRs) are sequences of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – the molecule that contains most of the genetic instructions for all living organisms – comprising 2–5 base pairs, which repeat throughout a human genome. Base pairs, linked nitrogen-containing biological compounds represented by A-T and C-G, are the building blocks of DNA.

Short tandem repeats can appear at thousands of different locations throughout the human genome, and are noteworthy for their high diversity within the population as well as their high mutation rates.

A repeated sequence, for example ATATATAT, will have a different number of copies of AT from one person to the next: “This is a kind of variation that we’re not good at measuring,” explains Dashnow, “so my work is trying to measure this variation so we can look for it in a clinical setting and figure out when it’s causing a disease.

“Genetic disorders such as ataxia [a dysfunction of the nervous system that affects movement] are often caused by these kinds of repetitive mutations, but it’s actually quite difficult to test for these using genome sequencing.”

Enter the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics, which employs the power of computer science, statistics and engineering to analyse and interpret biological data in order to tackle some of the most challenging questions facing biology today.

“When I was undertaking the biochemistry and genetics part of my undergraduate degree I was starting to hear how computational methods were being used to solve biological questions,” says Dashnow. “It became increasingly clear to me that was the direction biology was going in. So it was going to be important for people to have these computational skills.”

Dashnow, who clearly thrives on challenges, undertook a double degree in science and arts – with majors in biochemistry, genetics and psychology – at the University of Melbourne. And she believes this has proved to be highly beneficial: “It has given me the ability and confidence to write, which has been incredibly valuable, and it’s something that people who just study science don’t always get an opportunity to explore.”

Although she enjoyed the experience of studying literature and psychology as part of her arts degree, Dashnow is a scientist at heart. “I’ve always wanted to be a scientist ever since I was very little. In primary school I thought I wanted to be a physicist, but when I started to take science classes in high school I became really fascinated by biology and genetics, and how genes make us who we are,” she says, recalling the moment when her path in science became apparent to her.

After graduating, Dashnow took up a position as a bioinformatician at the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI), working on the Melbourne Genomics Health Alliance project, whose aim is to integrate genomics – the study of the structure and function of genes – into everyday healthcare.

“It will become more and more common to sequence people’s genomes when they get sick,” says Dashnow. “So understanding and interpreting information provided by genome sequencing will allow us to diagnose more diseases and come up with appropriate treatments.”

Dashnow did a Master’s degree in Bioinformatics at the University of Melbourne then worked at VLSCI for over a year before starting a PhD. The research she is now undertaking for her PhD follows on from her Master’s work, and has already been recognised through the awarding of a highly competitive MCRI PhD top-up scholarship.

Dashnow is currently visiting the Broad Institute, a world-class genomics and biological research centre that emerged from initiatives at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she will undertake collaborative research on muscle disorders, furthering her knowledge and understanding in the field.

– Carl Williams