Tag Archives: medicine

bacterial biofilms

Molecular warfare

Featured image above: Cyrille Boyer of UNSW’s School of Chemical Engineering. Credit: Quentin Jones

We often picture disease-causing bacteria as an invading army of individual cells. But in fact, these pathogens find strength in numbers, glomming onto each other and coating the surfaces around them in near-indestructible protective sheets called biofilms.  

These biofilms pose an enormous problem in medicine. They can form directly on lungs, wounds or other living tissue, and can contaminate medical devices such as catheters, prosthetic joints and other implants. Food production, water treatment, and other industrial facilities can also fall victim to their powers. Many types of biofilms resist antibiotics, and the bacteria they’re built from churn out toxins that make their human hosts sick. Yet, no good way exists to destroy them. 

Cyrille Boyer, a polymer chemist and Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine at UNSW in collaboration with Dr Nicolas Barraux, believes that a nanomaterial he designed – a polymer-coated iron oxide particle that heats up when a magnetic field is applied – can provide a solution.

In December 2015, he and his colleagues reported in Nature’s open access journal Scientific Reports that using these nanoparticles to raise the temperature of a biofilm by just a few degrees caused it to break apart.

bacterial biofilm

bacterial biofilm
Biofilm of staphylococcus aureus (or ‘golden staph’) on a catheter; bloodstream infections with this bacteria kill 20 to 35% of patients within a year.

Solo-swimming bacteria are much more susceptible to antibiotics, Boyer explains, so the researchers could then send in another type of particle to deliver medicine that kills off the bugs. They are now planning on testing the particles in live mice and discussing a potential partnership with a company interested in taking the method into clinical development.  

Polymer chemist Eva Harth from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, describes it as an out-of-the-box strategy to treat a long-intractable problem.

This paper shows that a polymer construct can be much more effective than a traditional drug,” she says. 

“There’s an enormous need for new technologies” for breaking up biofilms, says Rodney Dolan, Director of the Biofilms Laboratory at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s a very creative, very interesting approach, particularly combining particles with magnetic fields to localise and control the effect.” 

Smart, easy, elegant solution

Boyer is a master of materials, and his specialty is controlling the effects of the nanoparticles and polymers he creates.

“In my team, we are looking at how to make smarter nanoparticles, where the nanoparticle acts in response to an external signal,” he says.

In 2015, Boyer was awarded the Australian Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year for his work using light to catalyse the assembly of polymers with distinct properties. Although the biofilm-busting technique doesn’t employ light, it’s right in line with Boyer’s vision of building ‘smart’ particles whose behaviour can be controlled for therapeutic purposes.  

Boyer created his iron oxide particles in response to a discovery made by microbiologist Nicolas Barraud at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France. The two met by chance, when Barraud, then based at UNSW, was attending a conference out of town. He popped
in on a talk Boyer was giving about polymers that release nitric oxide.
“It was a serendipitous meeting,” he says. “We realised we were working at the same university, a few buildings across.”  

Barraud was studying the basic properties of biofilm formation and dispersal, and had recently discovered that nitric oxide could break up biofilms. Back in Sydney, he asked Boyer if he could try the polymers described in the talk. Boyer was happy to comply, and the approach worked relatively well, according to both researchers.

They published a couple of papers, filed a patent, and are still pursuing the project — but the drawback was that nitric oxide is a gas, which makes it difficult to spatially and temporally control its release.

Barraud had also discovered that giving biofilms a tiny temperature boost made the bacteria move and shake, ultimately disbanding them, but he couldn’t work out how to apply the discovery. Then one day, over a beer, Boyer mentioned that he could create particles that induce local heating. “I’ve worked with chemists before,” Barraud says, “and usually as soon as you get into the lab you run into problems. But with Cyrille’s polymer, it was very straightforward,” he says.  

That’s because in this project and others, Boyer focuses on identifying simple, well-worked-out polymerisation methods that can be used in specific applications. “Very precise materials that are easy to make – that’s the key,” says Harth. “It’s smart, easy, and elegant – that’s what he’s after.”

– Alla Katsnelson

For more stories at the forefront of engineering research, check out Ingenuity magazine.

Recommended for you: The Sunshine Factory

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.

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.

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.

combining skills

Women in STEM: the revolution ahead

On September 8, 70 days after the end of the financial year, Australia marked equal pay day. The time gap is significant as it marks the average additional time it takes for women to work to get the same wages as men.

Optimistically, we’d think this day should slowly move back towards June 30. And there are many reasons for optimism, as our panel of thought leaders point out in our online roundtable of industry, research and government leaders.

Yet celebrating a lessening in inequity is a feel-good exercise we cannot afford to over-indulge in.

While we mark achievements towards improving pipelines to leadership roles, work to increase enrolments of girls in STEM subjects at schools and reverse discrimination at many levels of decision making and representation, the reality is that many of these issues are only just being recognised. Many more are in dire need of being addressed more aggressively.

Direct discrimination against women and girls is something I hear about from mentors, friends and colleagues. It is prevalent and wide-reaching. There is much more we can do to address issues of diversity across STEM areas.

Enrolments of women in STEM degrees vary from 16% in computer science and engineering to 45% in science and 56% in medicine. These figures reinforce that we are teaching the next generation with the vestiges of an education system developed largely by men and for boys. There is a unique opportunity to change this.

Interdisciplinary skills are key to innovation. Millennials today will change career paths more frequently; digital technologies will disrupt traditional career areas. By communicating that STEM skills are an essential foundation that can be combined with your interest, goals or another field, we can directly tap into the next generation. We can prepare them to be agile workers across careers, and bring to the table their skills in STEM along with experiences in business, corporates, art, law and other areas. In this utopian future, career breaks are opportunities to learn and to demonstrate skills in new areas. Part-time work isn’t seen as ‘leaning out’.

We have an opportunity to redefine education in STEM subjects, to improve employability for our graduates, to create stronger, clearer paths to leadership roles, and to redefine why and how we study STEM subjects right from early primary through to tertiary levels.

By combining STEM with X, we are opening up the field to the careers that haven’t been invented yet. As career areas shift, we have the opportunity to unleash a vast trained workforce skilled to adapt, to transition across fields, to work flexibly and remotely.

We need to push this STEM + X agenda right to early education, promoting the study of different fields together, and creating an early understanding of the different needs that different areas require.

This is what drives me to communicate science and STEM through publications such as Careers with Science, Engineering and Code. We want to convey that there are exciting career pathways through studying STEM. But we don’t know what those pathways are – that’s up to them.

Just think how many app developers there were ten year ago – how many UX designers. In 10 or even five years, we can’t predict what the rapidly growing career areas will be. But we can create a STEM aware section of the population and by doing so now, we can ensure that the next generation has an edge in creating and redefining the careers of the future.

Heather Catchpole

Founder and Managing Director, Refraction Media

Read next: CEO of Science and Technology Australia, Kylie Walker, smashes all of the stereotypes in her campaign to celebrate Women in STEM.

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 women combining skills in STEM 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.

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.

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.