Tag Archives: uq


Creating the life-saving Nanopatch

Featured image above: creator of the Nanopatch, Professor Mark Kendall

Professor Mark Kendall was all set for a career in aerodynamics when he met a man with an unusual idea: he wanted to use rocket technology to fire vaccines into the skin. Intrigued, Kendall accepted the man’s offer to work at Oxford University, where together with others they developed the ‘gene gun’ – a device that used aerodynamic principles to deliver vaccines to the skin.

That was almost 20 years ago. Kendall has since moved back to Australia and pushed beyond the gene gun technology, creating the Nanopatch, a new and unique way to administer life-saving vaccines that is safer and more effective than using a needle and syringe.

The Nanopatch is a tiny piece of silicon, covered on one side with up to 20,000 microscopic projections per square centimetre. Each of these projections is coated in a dry vaccine. When the patch is applied, these projections deliver the vaccine just below the top layer of the skin, which is abundant in immune cells. Within about a minute, the vaccine becomes wet in the cellular environment and is released. 

 Animal testing has shown that the Nanopatch delivers similarly protective immune responses as the needle and syringe, with significantly lower doses of vaccine. Using dry vaccines also means there is no need for refrigeration. Being needle-free, there is mitigated risk of cross-contamination or injuries. Needle-phobic people can also rejoice: the patch delivery method promises to be painless.
“The Nanopatch has the potential to completely change the way vaccines are delivered and address ongoing problems in the global push for vaccines in the developing world,” says Kendall, Group Leader of The Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland.

From aerodynamics to immunology 

Originally a mechanical engineer with a PhD in hypervelocity aerodynamics – “I was researching high-speed wind tunnels for interplanetary missions” – Kendall’s interest in immunology stemmed from his time at Oxford working on the gene gun.

Immunologists had discovered there were thousands of immune cells just under the surface of the skin. Instead of injecting deep into muscle where there are fewer immune cells, why not administer vaccines to the skin? There was only one problem: the technology to effectively do this did not exist – until Kendall came along.

“As an engineer with a knowledge of immunology, I looked at the scale of the cells, their spatial position and how quickly they moved,” says Kendall.

“That fresh thinking allowed me to come up with the idea of using an array of nano-projections to deliver vaccines to those cells. For the array to work, you need a base on which to attach the projections and that was the silicon patch.”

More effective vaccines that don’t need refrigeration

The Nanopatch has two major advantages over traditional vaccination methods. The first is improved immunogenicity. In 2015, Kendall’s team, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, tested an inactivated poliovirus vaccine on rats using the Nanopatch. They found they needed 40 times less vaccine to generate the same functional immune response as the needle and syringe.

“Many of the new-generation vaccines are expensive, multi-dose medicines that are difficult to make,” says Kendall. “The Nanopatch, when proven in humans, has tremendous potential to reduce manufacturing costs because we will need less vaccine to induce a protective immune response.”

Smaller than a postage stamp and covered in vaccine-coated microscopic projections, the Nanopatch promises to save the lives of millions of people worldwide by giving them access to safe, effective and needle-free vaccinations.

Kendall hopes the Nanopatch can become a vehicle to make vaccines work better in the developing world. 

The Nanopatch has been tested in animals on vaccines for influenza, HPV, polio, malaria, HSV-2, chikungunya, West Nile virus and pneumococcus – all diseases plaguing developing nations. 

Of the 14 million people who die of infectious diseases every year, the majority are in developing countries, where people are not able to receive effective vaccines that exist for others, or they die from diseases that still do not have adequate vaccination methods. 

“The Nanopatch could potentially help on both fronts,” says Kendall. “It can bridge that ‘last mile’ to get effective vaccines to people who aren’t receiving them, and through its improved immunogenicity, could help candidate vaccines for diseases such as malaria to get over the line and be effective.” It may also be possible for people to self-administer the vaccine.

Moreover, unlike liquid vaccines that need to be kept cold from production to application, the Nanopatch does not require refrigeration. Lab tests have shown the dry vaccine can be stored at 23 degrees Celsius for more than a year without any loss of activity – a significant benefit in regions where vaccines have to travel long distances to reach their destination and where there may be no electricity to keep them cold.

Nanopatch trials are underway

In 2011, Kendall founded Vaxxas to develop and commercialise the Nanopatch, raising A$15 million in first-round funding – one of Australia’s largest-ever investments in a startup biotechnology company. Four years later, it raised A$25 million, the proceeds of which was used to advance a series of clinical programs and develop a pipeline of new vaccine products for major diseases.

Vaxxas has also forged a partnership with American pharmaceutical company Merck to evaluate, develop and commercialise the Nanopatch for vaccine candidates. In 2014, Vaxxas was selected as a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer based on the potential of the Nanopatch to improve health on a global scale.

The Nanopatch is currently undergoing clinical trials. The WHO will also conduct clinical tests to determine the utility of the Nanopatch for polio vaccinations. Concurrently, Vaxxas is determining if the Nanopatch can be manufactured in large numbers at low cost. All things going well, Kendall says the Nanopatch may be commercially available by 2020.

For his pioneering work, Kendall has received a raft of awards, most recently the 2016 Dr John Dixon Hughes Medal for Medical Research Innovation and the 2016 CSL Young Florey Medal, one of Australia’s highest science honours.

But Kendall will not rest until the Nanopatch is in the field. 

“Vaccines will continually be improved; there will be new vaccines coming out for diseases that don’t currently have adequate vaccination strategies and improved vaccines for the ones that do,” he says.

“I’m not going to be satisfied until we’ve rolled the Nanopatch out, taken it out of the lab and got it to people in large numbers, particularly the people who need it the most.”

Mark Kendall with the Nanopatch

Find out more about The Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at the University of Queensland.

Find out more about Vaxxas.

– Charmaine Teoh

This article was first published by Australia Unlimited. Read the original article here.


BioClay to create healthier food futures

A University of Queensland (UQ) team has made a discovery called ‘BioClay’ that could help conquer the greatest threat to global food security – pests and diseases in plants.

Research leader Professor Neena Mitter says BioClay – an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemicals and pesticides – could be a game-changer for crop protection.

“In agriculture, the need for new control agents grows each year, driven by demand for greater production, the effects of climate change, community and regulatory demands, and toxicity and pesticide resistance,” she says.

“Our disruptive research involves a spray of nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA, that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens.”

The research, by scientists from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) is published in Nature Plants.

Mitter says the technology reduces the use of pesticides without altering the genome of the plants.

“Once BioClay is applied, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease.

“A single spray of BioClay protects the plant and then degrades, reducing the risk to the environment or human health.”

She says BioClay meets consumer demands for sustainable crop protection and residue-free produce.

“The cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry, contributing to global food security and to a cleaner, greener image of Queensland.”

AIBN’s Professor Zhiping Xu says BioClay combines nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“It will produce huge benefits for agriculture in the next several decades, and the applications will expand into a much wider field of primary agricultural production,” Professor Xu says.

The project has been supported by a Queensland Government Accelerate Partnership grant and a partnership with Nufarm Limited.

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a UQ institute jointly supported by the Queensland Government.

This article was first published by the University of Queensland on 10 January 2017. Read the original article here.

citizen science

Citizen data monitors coral bleaching

Featured image above: a volunteer monitors coral bleaching using Coralwatch’s citizen science survey. Credit: Coralwatch

Who did the research?

CoralWatch, based at the University of Queensland and funded by multiple external organisations.

What is the citizen science project about?

CoralWatch is a citizen data (‘citizen science’) initiative to monitor coral health worldwide. It is the first attempt at providing useful data on coral reef health at large scale with non-invasive tools. Scientists, school groups, dive centres and tourists can measure coral bleaching using the  Coral Health Chart – a simple plastic square – and add their data to the CoralWatch database.

Coral bleaching occurs when increased water temperatures causes coral to expel their symbiotic algae that help absorb nutrients and provide corals vibrant  colour. Rising sea temperatures due to climate change have caused unprecedented levels of coral bleaching.


What is the real-life data impact of the research or project?

Since CoralWatch started in 2002, over 146,000 corals from 1,228 reefs have been surveyed across 70 countries. This data is freely available online for use in scientific analysis and for educational purposes such as school projects.

Several studies have used the CoralWatch data to track the status of coral reefs around the world. The project has also been instrumental in raising public concern on the severity of the ecosystem crisis many reefs are undergoing, such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Find out more – watch the CoralWatch video


Click here to visit the Coralwatch website.

Share your own story of data impact

Send ANDS your stories using the form on the main #dataimpact page, or help promote these stories on social media using the hashtag #dataimpact.

This article on citizen science was first published by the Australian National Data Service on 21 October 2016. Read the original article here.

You might also like:

Birth defects: a data discovery

engineering careers

Engineering careers in business

Looking back, I’m so pleased that I chose to study maths and science at school – even though at the time I had no idea of the opportunities this would bring. Thirty years on, I’m a professional engineer and director of a fascinating portfolio of companies. These span a range of engineering and resources sectors such as electricity generation, retail, water, natural gas and minerals. I’m glad I chose an engineering career, and that many more women are now joining me in this industry.

Identifying business purpose

I’m hearing a lot about purpose in business – establishing why we are in business – and that resonates as much or more with customers than what our products are and how we sell them. STEM education can give us the practical and analytical tools to help identify the why, and then deliver the what and the how.

Today’s graduates need systems thinking – an understanding of the interactions between components of an organisation, product or problem – to work across disciplinary boundaries. This is crucial to developing sustainable solutions that will enable our society to transition from the industrial era to the digital era, and embrace the disruption of business with the rise of consumer power.

“Many of the most interesting challenges facing businesses require a broad understanding of economics, finance, politics, marketing and communication, as well as skills in STEM areas.”

Encouraging STEM education more broadly in our society

Girls (and boys) start out with a fascination for science as they explore the world during early childhood, but many seem to lose this fascination as they develop into adults. Fortunately, we know how to stimulate interest in STEM using hands-on activities, engaging role models and examples of real-world achievements. Results for the effort are fantastic.

My husband and I have experienced this first hand with our daughter who pronounced in Year 1 that ‘science was boring’, only to be subjected to a very successful intervention from her parents (one an amateur astronomer and myself an engineer). We are still on the watch for any dimming curiosity.

The Leeanne Bond Scholarship at The University of Queensland provides financial assistance for a first year female engineering student. It encourages pursuit of the wonderful engineering careers there are for women as well as men. In addition to showing passion, ability and need, all applicants write an essay on engineering and business. It’s clear from these essays that these young women aspire to shape their world and engage with business and society to achieve their goals.

Integrators, disruptors and translators in engineering careers

I’m very encouraged by the interest in coding and robotics for young children we see today. Having started my engineering career in an era of Fortran programming and computer cards – programming that is now done on laptops and mobiles – I’m keeping up-to-date with information technology and social media. I see the nexus between traditional mature large-scale, capital-intensive industries I know well like utilities and manufacturing, and the newer, radical, disruptive, emerging business models like 3D printing and ecommerce as exciting – and I want to be part of it.

Many of the most interesting challenges facing businesses, such as sustainability, require a broad understanding of economics, finance, politics, marketing and communication, as well as skills in STEM areas. To tackle these challenges, engineers and scientists work in cross-disciplinary project teams of people with diverse backgrounds and qualifications.

A great example of the rising need for cross-disciplinary skills is in the personal transportation industry, where technological disruption is ripe. I recently heard a senior executive from a European car manufacturer speak of the need to fuse engineering and technology skills. In the race to develop electric and autonomous vehicles, today’s car companies are adding coding expertise to their traditional engineering teams and aspiring disrupters like Apple and Google are hiring engineers to work alongside their technology staff.

It is an exciting time to be an engineer in business!

Leeanne Bond

Director, Breakthrough Energy

Read next: Victor RodriguesChief Software Architect at Cochlear, on getting into a top graduate program.

People and careers: Meet graduates and postgraduates who’ve paved brilliant, cross-disciplinary careers here, find further success stories here and explore your own career options at postgradfutures.com

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

Be part of the conversation: Share your ideas on creating and propelling top Australian graduates. We’d love to hear from you!

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


Chatting with chatbots

Human communication goes beyond words. It is complex, rich in nuances and frequently includes non-verbal signs. Yet despite our technological limitations it is not impossible for some aspects of communication to be emulated by a machine with surprising effect.

This has been part of the challenge in developing Harlie (Human and Robot Language Interaction Experiment), a smartphone chatbot app developed by researchers from the CSIRO’s e-health research program and the University of Queensland.

It’s primarily aimed at people who may have trouble conversing including those with neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia, or even autism.

The following dialog excerpt took place between a human who has autism, let’s call him Chris (pseudonym), and Harlie.

Harlie: Are you part of a community group?

Chris: Um, yes I am.

Harlie: I see. I hear that community groups often offer the opportunity to craft and build things. Is that something you enjoy doing?

Chris: Oh yes I do. This is really exciting.

Harlie: I see. What kind of things do you wish you could make one day?

Chris: Wooden train.

Harlie: That sounds like a great thing to aspire to. What project would recommended to a beginner like me?

Chris: Uh huh a bird feeder.

Harlie: Thanks. I will add that to my list. What supplies would I need to buy for my toolkit?

Chris: Ah hammer, nails, good supply of wood.

But Harlie, like all other artificial intelligent (AI) programs, has no concept of community groups, woodwork or anything else for that matter. That is to say it has no sentience.

And alas, sentient chatbots are seemingly light years beyond our reach. But is sentience needed to convey ideas, feelings and activities?

To some degree, no.

Chatbot programmers, or botmasters, develop and maintain a large repository of responses to the plethora of input statements that could be made by the user.

The way most modern chatbots operate is illustrated in this figure.

The typical chatbot brain is a tree-like structure. Credit: David Ireland

Phrases that could be uttered by a human are grouped together to form branches. At the end of the branch, is the leaf, or a piece of code that is executed by the machine.

This code could simply be “respond with ‘Hi human'” or it could be a machine learning algorithm determining the appropriate response based on current semantics and context.

This is where the exciting research is happening.

New branches are added continuously through conversations and feedback with potential customers, as is the case with Harlie, or through self-learning as was seen in the disastrous example of Microsoft’s social media chatbot Tay, which was shut down within a day of going live earlier this year after declaring, among other controversial tweets, that “Hitler was right”.

A more successful use of AI was revealed earlier this month in the USA. Students studying artificial intelligence at the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered that “Jill”, one of the teaching assistants responding to their emails regarding a course, was actually a computer powered by IBM’s Watson analytics system.

Jill’s responses were simply based on the answers to questions that previous students had asked about the course. As the college points out, students tend to ask the same questions over and over and after some initial tinkering, Jill was able to answer students with about 97% certainty.

The ELIZA effect

Attempts to create a convincing conversation with a machine have been going on for decades.

The first chatbot was called ELIZA. Developed in 1966, the program was created by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. This program was unparalleled because for the first time a machine could seemingly converse with a human.

ELIZA emulated a psychotherapist’s responses to would-be patients in replies generated for typed, text-only conversations.

By identifying key words and phrases, ELIZA was able to respond with surprising intelligibility and insight. In fact, it was so highly personified by some users that they would spend hours conversing and refused to share conversation records with researchers.

This phenomenon become known as the ELIZA effect. An excerpt of a famous ELIZA transcript that was published in 1966 between ELIZA and a young woman is given below.

Human: Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

ELIZA: Your boyfriend made you come here?

Human: He says I’m depressed much of the time.

ELIZA: I am sorry to hear you are depressed.

Human: It’s true. I am unhappy.

ELIZA: Do you think coming here will help you not to be unhappy?

Human: I need some help, that much seems certain.

ELIZA: What would it mean to you if you got some help?

Human: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother.

ELIZA: Tell me more about your family.

Modern day

Since ELIZA, computer power has increased at an exponential rate, but how far have we come towards a next generation of chatbots? Voice recognition is now an accepted part of smartphone technology with Google Now and Apple’s Siri. But what about developments in actual conversations with AI?

An annual AI competition is held where human judges speak to different chatbots whose developers are seeking the coveted Loebner prize and the deadline for entries this year is 1 July. The winner is decided by judges who determine the most human-like chatbot.

A prominent entry and winner in 2013 was the Mitsuku chatbot, which was designed for more general typed conversation.

The Mitsuku website provides a Turing test to gauge humans perceptions of the chatbot.

The human user is either connected to a real human or Mitsuku. Results show that on average, 12% of people thought they were talking to a human when in fact they were talking to a machine.

Here is a dialog excerpt from Mitsuku showing her apparent wit:

Human: What’s the difference between a man and a woman?

Mitsuku: A man – a male human being. A woman is a man built to more complete specifications.

Human: That’s not what I meant.

Mitsuku: Oh sorry, what do you mean?

Human: What does a man have a woman doesn’t?

Mitsuku: A well paid job?

Last year’s winner of the Loebner prize was called Rose and it is possible to have a spoken conversation with the chatbot on some web browsers. She too can be quite witty, and talkative too.

The future

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella said at an event in March that chatbots will have, “as profound an impact as previous shifts we’ve had”. Much like the shift that occurred with the introduction of the graphical user interface, the web browser or touchscreen.

But there are numerous challenges ahead and building a convincing chatbot requires enormous amounts of data and time.

Microsoft’s Tay showed us the dangers of using shortcuts by crowd-sourcing unchecked new branches into Tay’s brain.

In contrast, the Mitsuku developer has taken the long road and constantly refined Mitsuku’s digital brain since 2004.

Nevertheless, the possibility of Harlie helping users who struggle with communication, or of Mitsuku providing a convincing partner, suggests talking machines may go beyond current smartphone use in making hotel bookings and providing directions, and become something much more in the next generation.

– Dr David Ireland, Dr Christina Atay and Dr Jacki Liddle

This article was first published by The Conversation on 18 May 2016. Read the original article here.