Tag Archives: medical research

Alertness CRC

Developing smarter ways to sleep

Dr David White, Harvard professor and chief scientific officer at Philips Respironics.

Sleep disorders and inadequate sleep can cause real harm, so the Alertness CRC is working with institutions and industry partners, including global tech giant Philips, on solutions.

“If you’re sleepy or sleep deprived, your performance goes down, your attention to detail and vigilance goes down, reaction time gets worse, your executive function gets worse, and your mood gets worse,” says Dr David White, Harvard professor and chief scientific officer at Philips Respironics. “That leads to higher absenteeism and decreased productivity in the workplace.” With two in five Australians not getting enough sleep, the economic cost was an estimated $26.2 billion in lost productivity in 2016–2017.

Poor sleep is also linked to serious health problems. “Sleep disorders can lead to mental illnesses, cardiovascular, kidney and urinary tract disease, diabetes and loss of cognitive function,” says White.

That further loss of personal wellbeing was valued at $40.1 billion in 2016–2017.

The Alertness CRC has partnered with sleep physicians and specialists in developing a range of clinically validated tools that could really make a difference to people’s lives, including the lives of family members who can also be affected by another person’s poor sleep.

“For a wide variety of reasons, the vast majority of people do not address theirsleep problems, such as sleep apnoea or insomnia, so they remain undiagnosed and untreated,” says White. “In this research partnership, we are collaboratively working on ways to help consumers improve their sleep as easily and effectively as possible.”

Brendan Fitzpatrick

alertnesscrc.com

This article was published in KnowHow Issue 9.

science policy

Make your expertise available

Featured image: President of Science & Technology Australia, Professor Jim Piper (left), hosts a meeting between Science meets Parliament delegates and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) in 2016

Darren, what’s your particular area of research and how can it help to inform policy in Australia?

I am a medical researcher, working to understand the biology of cancer and neurodegeneration, and use that knowledge to design new therapies. Both diseases have a huge health and financial impact in Australia and internationally, and with an ageing population this impact will only increase, with obvious implications for health funding and policy.

When you first attended Science meets Parliament, how did you prepare for your research pitch?

I really didn’t know what to expect so I was actually pretty underprepared. I won’t make that mistake this time!

Did your pitch have the desired outcome? What would you do differently next time?

I had a great discussion with a Greens senator from Western Australia who had a strong interest in environmental issues. We talked about the importance of science in understanding the environment and gathering data as a foundation for drafting good evidence-based policy in areas such as fisheries management and forestry. In some ways I didn’t really have to do much convincing! 

This time I plan to research the electorate of the parliamentarians I’ll meet and the issues that might be important in that context. I’ll make sure I understand the issues they have flagged as important to them and think about how my background and research interests might align with those issues. I also plan to ask them questions to find common ground for discussion.

Describe your experience at Science meets Parliament (SmP). What did you think of the event?

I was really enthused by SmP, and impressed by the level engagement of the politicians and policymakers who attended. I found it an invaluable learning experience and a fantastic opportunity to meet scientists across a broad spectrum of specialities.

Seeing the workings of government up close (if only briefly) was a real eye opener and the various briefings and workshops were constructive and informative. I still draw on the things I learnt there.

In many ways it was a catalyst to me becoming much more interested and active in science policy and communication.

What advice do you have for other researchers who are trying to turn their knowledge into action?

Keep a constructive mindset and focus on how science might help, rather than just presenting a list of problems or complaints.

Listen to the concerns and issues that are important and make yourself available as a source of expertise and advice on the process and outcomes of science by fostering relationships.

Be aware that politics and policy development work to different timelines and use different language to science.

Try to take a bipartisan approach.

What have been the major challenges in getting your science heard by policymakers in Australia, and how have you overcome them?

The most difficult barriers to progress have been the relatively regular turnover of ministers, a challenging funding environment (which always seems to dominate discussions) and hostile attitudes to evidence and rejection of “expertise” in some quarters. 

Overcoming these is really challenging and incredibly time-consuming. My approach is to attempt to build dialogue wherever possible, and to be proactive in making science relevant and interesting to the general public.

I take every opportunity I can to tell people about the outcomes and process of science. Public support for science might eventually translate into it being heard at the policy level.

How do you think the relationship between science and politics in Australia compares with other countries, and what lessons could we take from overseas?

I believe we can learn a lot from other countries. For example, we could benefit from aspects of science and policy partnering schemes employed in the UK, science diplomacy schemes in the US, and the appointment of ministers with relevant experience and qualifications in places like Canada.

Most government departments in the UK have a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to provide scientific advice and PhD students can undertake three-month internship placements in the Government Office for Science.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have a Centre for Science Diplomacy which aims to use to promote scientific cooperation as an essential element of foreign policy.

What are you most looking forward to at Science meets Parliament this year, and what do you hope to see more of in the future?

I look forward to meeting interesting and driven people, gaining new insights and hopefully gaining some traction with politicians about the importance of science and its ability to help drive the health and prosperity of Australians.

Click here to find out more about Science meets Parliament.

blindness

New river blindness vaccine begins trial

Featured image above: The new vaccine Advax could prevent river blindness, which affects 17 million people globally. Credit: Flinders University 

A new vaccine with the potential to prevent millions of cases of blindness is a step closer to commercialisation.

The river blindness vaccine is being developed using the patented adjuvant technology Advax by biotechnology company Vaxine Pty Ltd in South Australia.

The vaccine, which uses a unique sugar-based adjuvant, is set for cattle trials before the end of the year.

According to the World Health Organisation, river blindness, also known as onchocerciasis, affects about 17 million people globally.

It is spread by blackflies that breed in rivers, infecting humans and cattle with a parasitic worm known as Onchocerca volvulus.

The parasites can cause eye inflammation, bleeding, and other complications that ultimately lead to blindness.

Advax makes the pathogen in the vaccine more easily recognised by the body’s immune system so it can develop appropriate antibodies.

The vaccine is being primed for a cattle trial in the United States after successful testing in mice.

Vaxine Scientific Director Nikolai Petrovsky said the company planned a two-pronged approach to effectively preventing the disease.

“First we’re looking to vaccinate the cattle, which are a breeding ground for the parasite,” he says.

“Then the other side of this is to immunise the children so if they come in contact with the parasite it blocks the infection.

“Our technology is a bit like melding a turbocharger to the engine and in this case makes the vaccine dramatically more powerful.”

Blackflies bite the host, passing on the parasite in the process. The parasitic worms then produce microfilariae that migrate to the skin, eyes and other organs.

Onchocerciasis is a major cause of blindness in African, particularly in the western and central parts of the continent. It is also prevalent in many South American countries.

River blindness is partly responsible for the reduction of economic productivity in many of those areas, causing vast tracts of arable land to be abandoned.

Potential solutions to the problem, such as ivermectin, have been developed but have often led to a resistance to the drugs.

Professor Petrovski says one of the main problems was that other methods used aluminium-based adjuvants, which were not always effective.

“We offer a new alternative that is not only potentially safer because it is a sugar instead of a metal/salt with high toxicity,” he says.

“Our adjuvant also works for a lot of vaccines that wouldn’t work with aluminium. The ones that tried to create an onchocerciasis vaccine didn’t take but ours actually works.”

Vaxine is funded by the US National Institutes of Health to develop polysaccharide adjuvants that have played a vital role in the development of a range of vaccines for infectious diseases, allergies, and cancers.

It is internationally renowned for developing the world’s first swine flu vaccine during the 2009 pandemic and is active on other fronts including Ebola and Zika virus research.

The river blindness vaccine was developed in association with Thomas Jefferson University and the New York Blood Centre in the United States.

The group has received a grant from the US Government for the cattle trial and plans to begin tests in the coming weeks.

The results of the vaccine’s mice trials were published in National Center for Biotechnology Information.

This article was first published by The Lead South Australia on 18 November 2016. Read the original article here.

GSK Award

GSK Award for Research Excellence winners

Australian researchers exploring “dimmer switch” medicines that could help patients with obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia, have won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence.

The ground-breaking research by Professors Arthur Christopoulos and Patrick Sexton from Monash University offers hope for people with chronic conditions. According to the researchers, medicines that can be “turned up” or “turned down” rather than “on and off“ will give doctors more variability to tailor treatment to a patient’s medical needs. Medicines based on this principle will allow patients to lead a more normal life without the side effects associated with existing drugs.

Their research into G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) has begun to unravel the complexities of drug action that could lead to more targeted medicines. The “dimmer switch” of a protein, known as the allosteric site, allows the targeted protein to be dialled up or down in a way that was not previously possible.

Both professors were congratulated on winning the GSK Award for Research Excellence at the annual Research Australia Awards in Sydney. The award is well recognised among the Australian medical research community and includes an $80,000 prize that will help the winners progress their work.

“Many medicines have unwanted side effects because they work by simply turning receptors on or off, even though we know that most of these proteins have the potential for more graded levels of response that can become highly relevant in the contexts of tissue specificity, disease and individual patient profiles. We have discovered a more tailored way to exploit this functionality, by targeting regions on the receptors that act more like dimmer switches rather than on/off switches,” says Sexton.

Both professors are world leaders in the study of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), the largest class of drug targets, and the application of analytical pharmacology to understand allosteric modulation. In recent years their work has challenged traditional views of how medicines were thought to work.

“We have found molecules that can subtly dial up or dial down the effect of the receptor protein, or even ‘dictate’ which pathways it can or can’t signal to. This means we could in theory treat a range of diseases with this approach more effectively and safely by avoiding some of the side effects associated with standard on/off-type drugs.”

“Because an allosteric mechanism is more subtle and ‘tuneable’, medicines based on this principle can allow patients to lead a more normal life, especially those with chronic conditions,” says Christopoulos.

The GSK Award for Research Excellence is one of the most prestigious awards available to the Australian medical research community. It has been awarded since 1980 to recognise outstanding achievements in medical research with potential importance to human health.

Dr Andrew Weekes, Medical Director, GSK Australia, said GSK is proud to be able to support local researchers with the Award, now in its 36th year.

“The award has been given to some remarkable people over the years, many of whom are eminent academics in their field. GSK is honoured to support the research community and excited by their discoveries, which we believe will one day help patients,” says Weekes.

Professor Christopoulos said winning the GSK Award for Research Excellence is a great recognition of the efforts of all the scientists who have worked in this area over the years, often in the face of early scepticism.

“Science relies on the efforts and insights generated from dedicated people over many years. For us, this award is thus also an acknowledgement and testament to our colleagues, collaborators, students and postdocs who have helped us take a theoretical concept to the point where today we are creating a new paradigm in drug discovery,” says Christopoulos.

“This award will greatly assist us in progressing our research on allosteric modulation into new areas, and accelerate the possibility of helping patients suffering from a range of diseases that represent global health burdens but remain sub-optimally treated,” says Sexton.

Among the previous recipients of the GSK Award for Research Excellence are Australia’s most noted scientific researchers, including Professor Tony Basten (1980), Professor Nicos Nicola (1993) and Professor Peter Koopman (2007). The 2015 GSK Award for Research Excellence was awarded to James McCluskey (University of Melbourne) and Jamie Rossjohn (Monash University) for their research into the immune system.

This information on the GSK Award for Research Excellence was first shared as a media release by GSK on 17 November 2016. 

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.

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.

gemstones-nanomaterials

Tiny gemstones advance nanoscale imaging

Featured image above: Nanomaterials composed of tiny diamonds and rubies can be used to light up and image a long chain of proteins. Credit: Carlo Bradac

A research team at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) – led by Dr Philipp Reineck from RMIT University’s School of Science – tested the ruby and diamond particles, more than a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a hair, alongside other nanoparticles for use in biological imaging, and found that they have a higher degree of stability, critical to achieving imaging success.

“Fluorescing nanoparticles can be used as ‘tiny lamps’ that when placed in the body, are able to light up cells and their internal processes.”

“We shine light at the biological sample of interest in a very controlled way and the nanomaterials send light back, helping us to see very specifically what is happening, right down to a molecule and protein level.”

“This is the area we’re focused on, exploring how the ‘very small’ can help us in answering some of the very big questions in biology.”

In the study published in the journal Advanced Optical Materials, the team compared seven types of fluorescent nanomaterials – organic dyes, semiconductor quantum dots, fluorescent beads, carbon dots and gold nanoclusters, as well as the nano sized diamonds and rubies.

Characteristics tested for included levels of fluorescence brightness and photostability (resistance to change under the influence of light), as well as how efficiently these new materials can be imaged using standard microscopes used in biology.

“Nanomaterials have widely differing characteristics and we need to determine which materials will work best in which imaging application,” Reineck said.

“What our study clearly shows is that nanodiamonds and nanorubies are excellent materials for long-term biological imaging.

“These two materials provide acceptable levels of brightness and the best photostability by far, when compared to the other materials that were tested.”

In other study findings, Reineck noted clear trade-offs in many of the nanomaterials examined.

“We found that ideal levels of photostability generally mean a sacrifice in brightness and vice versa,” he said.

“For example, during testing, the organic dyes and carbon dots were much brighter than the rubies and the diamonds – but photobleaching (or fading) was a major issue, impacting their practical imaging use.”

Reineck’s next step will be to work closely with biologists and medical researchers within the CNBP to develop selected nanomaterials so that they can be used with the needed precision and reliability to light-up real-world biological environments.

Future application of the materials will relate to fertility, chronic pain and heart disease research, key focus areas for the CNBP.

“The real treasure isn’t the rubies or the diamonds,” concluded Reineck.

“It will be the way in which we use these materials to shed new light on the incredibly complex processes taking place in the living body, helping us understand a whole host of matters relating to health, wellbeing and disease.”

The Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) is an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence, with research focussed nodes at the University of Adelaide, Macquarie University and RMIT University.

A $40 million initiative, the CNBP is focused on developing new light-based imaging and sensing tools, that can measure the inner workings of cells, in the living body.

– Petra van Nieuwenhoven

This article was first published by RMIT University on 20 July 2016. Read the original article here.

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.

Medical Research

Passage of the Medical Research Future Fund Bill

The successful passage of legislation to establish the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Bill 2015 will significantly benefit the health and wellbeing of thousands of Australians. It will also strengthen Australia’s position as a global leader in medical research, says Professor James McCluskey, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research at The University of Melbourne.

“The full $20 billion accumulated in the fund will double Australia’s investment in medical research. This will allow more commercial spinoffs to be captured for the benefit of Australians through innovation, leading to economic activity and new, highly-skilled jobs,” says McCluskey.

With an initial contribution of $1 billion from the uncommitted balance of the Health and Hospitals Fund, and $1 billion provided per year until it reaches $20 billion, the MRFF will support basic and applied medical research – and will be the largest of its kind in the world.

To ensure the MRFF meets the needs of the medical research community, amendments to the Bill include directing funding towards transitional research, which attracts added research funding from the commercial sector. Also included are suggestions by the Australian Green Party, such as ensuring that funding for the Medical Research Council will not be shifted to the MRFF.

By providing an alternative source of funding to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the MRFF will make Australia more competitive with other countries that already have multiple funding agencies.

The UK, for example, has the Medical Research Council – the equivalent of the NHMRC – as well as the $40 billion funded Welcome Trust; a charitable foundation that invests in medical research. The USA also has a number of very generous funding sources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Research Foundation.

Researchers from the health, university, industry and independent medical research institute sectors will be able to access MRFF. It may also include interdisciplinary sectors such as medical physics, big data analytics and others contributing to national health and medical outcomes.

“Importantly, MRFF will also include initiatives that are currently not well supported by public research funding schemes,” says McCluskey. “For example, joint research with government or pharma [the pharmaceutical industry] in the development of new drugs and medical devices.”

The exact fields to be targeted will be determined by the Minister for Health, Sussan Ley. Advice will come from an independent board of experts including the CEO of NHMRC and eight experts in medical research and innovation, health policy, commercialisation, experience and knowledge in philanthropy, consumer issues, and translation of research into applications in frontline medical practice. The Minister will announce the members of the board shortly.

The MRFF will be established following Royal Assent of the Bill.

– Carl Williams