Immune peacekeepers discovered; Nobel Laureate speaks out; dark energy in Brisbane and more…

Australian National Fabrication Facility, Media bulletins

Science in Public media bulletin 18 October 2011.

How does our skin say, “Don’t worry, these are good guys”?

There are more bacteria living on our skin and in our gut than cells in our body. We need them. But until now no-one knew how the immune system could tell that these bacteria are harmless.

Centenary Institute researchers in Sydney have discovered a set of peacekeepers—immune cells in the outer layers of our skin that stop us from attacking friendly bacteria.

The media release is copied below and is online at

Tomorrow, Wednesday, the $25,000 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize will be awarded to a brilliant young biomedical researcher. Today we announce the finalists – see below. Join us for lunch in Sydney tomorrow to find out who will win this inaugural prize.

Also this week, a young astrophysicist, inspired by Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt, talks in Brisbane about her hunt for dark energy—the mysterious stuff inferred by Brian’s discovery that the Universe is getting bigger, faster.

Tamara Davis is an L’Oréal Australia Fellow, the 2011 national Women in Physics lecturer, an astrophysicist at the Universities of Queensland and Copenhagen, and good talent.

This week she is speaking in Brisbane, more information below.

The $500,000 Prime Minister’s Prizes were announced on Wednesday 12 October at Parliament House.

The winners are from Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. They are all remarkable achievers whose work is largely unknown outside of their discipline.

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt spoke at the event on the education revolution that drives science and builds nations.

Brian’s speech is copied below and online at

Details on the winners are available now at including photos and high quality videos.

And finally, Immortal (the SBS doco about Liz Blackburn’s Nobel work) won at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival 2011. Congratulations to Melbourne-based production companies December Media and Pemberton Films.‎

Immune peacekeepers discovered

How our skin says, “Don’t worry, these are good guys,” revealed today in PNAS.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

There are more bacteria living on our skin and in our gut than cells in our body. We need them. But until now no-one knew how the immune system could tell that these bacteria are harmless.

Centenary Institute researchers in Sydney have discovered a set of peacekeepers—immune cells in the outer layers of our skin that stop us from attacking friendly bacteria.

The work will open the way to new therapeutic options for immune-mediated diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, of which Australia has some of the world’s highest rates.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Professor Barbara Fazekas de St Groth and her team have shown that the immune cells in the outer layer of the skin constantly act as peacekeepers to stop the immune system from reacting the way it normally would. Known as Langerhans cells, they resisted every attempt by the researchers to get them to generate an immune response.

The researchers worked with a group of mice in which only the Langerhans cells could stimulate the immune system. They then activated the Langerhans cells and measured the response.

“No matter what we threw at them to get them to activate a long-term immune response, the Langerhans cells always induced immune tolerance,” Prof Fazekas says.

This result seems to go against the prevailing wisdom in immunology about the workings of dendritic cells, the class of immune cell to which Langerhans cells belong.

Dendritic cells engulf bacteria, viruses or other invaders and put a marker from that invader, known as an antigen, on a protein that can bind to other immune cells.

The antigen reprograms passing T cells, the workhorses of the immune system, which then set off a cascade of responses that eventually lead to the destruction of anything displaying that antigen.

However, the Centenary team (which is affiliated with the University of Sydney and RPA Hospital) found Langerhans cells are very different from other dendritic cells: after turning on the helper T cells, they tell them to self-destruct instead.

“This is the opposite of what you’d usually expect.  In previous studies of immune cells, if there was a flurry of activity, we assumed it was the start of a long-term immune response,” Prof Fazekas says.

However, the immune system is a layered defence¬—the next layer of skin has different kinds of dendritic cells, which program on-going responses against bacteria. So if bacteria penetrate deep enough to meet these cells, the immune response will kill them.

In inflammatory bowel disease, which afflicts thousands of Australians, the immune system is activated against the gut bacteria, which are usually left alone.

This discovery opens up possible ways to figure out why this disorder occurs and to find treatments to a range of diseases of the immune system.

“There is so much we don’t know about the immune system, but sometimes just mimicking what the system does, like we do with vaccines, can work very well” Prof Fazekas says,

“If we do manage to mimic what Langerhans cells do, then we could develop treatments that would precisely tolerise against specific antigens – just like the immune system of the skin does now.”

Centenary Institute executive director Professor Mathew Vadas says this latest paper comes just weeks after Centenary researcher Patrick Bertolino made the front cover of PNAS for his paper on immune response in the liver.

“The Centenary Institute is interested in understanding how the immune system works—these discoveries and others already in the pipeline here are a major step forward towards that goal,” Prof Vadas says.

For more, call Andrew Wight on (03) 9398 1416, +61 422 982 829.

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize

Tomorrow, Wednesday, the $25,000 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize will be awarded to a brilliant young biomedical researcher.

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is a $25,000 award for outstanding creativity in biomedical research by young scientists.  The winner will be announced at an awards luncheon on Wednesday 19 October at the UBS dining room in Sydney. Join us if you’re in Sydney. Here are the three finalists.

  • Greg Neely, from the Garvan Institute in Sydney, hunts for two different sorts of genes—those that cause pain and those that make us more susceptible to heart attacks.
  • Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, from Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) is unravelling how and why breast stem cells contribute to the progression of breast cancer.
  • Marc Pellegrini’s discoveries about the immune system are being applied to clinical trials of cancer vaccines and treatments for HIV and hepatitis. He is also from Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI).

2011 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were presented by the Prime Minister and the Innovation Minister at the Prize Dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament House on Wednesday 12 October 2011.

Click on the prize name to get taken through to a full citation.

The winners in brief

What’s behind Australia’s Physics Nobel

Revealing the dark side…in Brisbane

What we see in the night sky is only five per cent of what’s there. The other 95 per cent of the Universe is a mystery. A young physicist mentored by Brian Schmidt, Australia’s new Nobel Laureate, has answers.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

One of Australia’s leading young physicists will reveal the dark secrets of the Universe at a public talk in Brisbane on Wednesday 19 October and she’s available for interview.

Dr Tamara Davis is a L’Oréal Australia Fellow, the 2011 national Women in Physics lecturer, an astrophysicist at the Universities of Queensland and Copenhagen, and good talent.

Tamara’s work is directly inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning research done by teams led by Brian Schmidt at The Australian National University and Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess in the US, and she’s worked with all three.

In 1998 Australian astronomers were competing head to head with the US team to measure if the Universe was expanding or contracting—by using supernovae as ‘standard candles’. Their results turned astronomy on its head. Both teams found that the Universe was not just expanding, but that the expansion was accelerating.

“The discovery of acceleration was an enormous shock, because it broke our models of how the Universe works,” Tamara says.

The models were fixed by invoking dark energy. The question was: is dark energy real?

“The discovery of dark energy came just at the time when I was considering what research I should pursue,” says Tamara, “and it is no overstatement to say that the entire direction of my research career has been determined by Brian, Saul, and Adam’s discovery.

“As a young researcher there was just nothing nearly as exciting as trying to figure out what had broken our understanding of gravity.”

Earlier this year, she and her colleagues on the WiggleZ Dark Energy Survey confirmed that dark energy is real—by observing thousands of ancient exploding stars. The work confirms again Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the ‘standard model’ of our Universe.

Tamara was one of 26 astronomers from 14 different institutions who took four years to look at over 200,000 galaxies. The team, led by Dr Chris Blake from Swinburne University and Professor Michael Drinkwater from The University of Queensland, used the Anglo-Australian Telescope near Coonabarabran, NSW, to provide an independent check on the supernova results. They measured the pattern of how galaxies are distributed in space and how quickly clusters of galaxies formed over time, to confirm the observations from supernovae.

So now we know that everything we can see in the night sky— planets, stars, gas clouds, galaxies etc.—make up only five per cent of the Universe. 24 per cent is dark matter. But most of our Universe (over 70 per cent) is dark energy.

Tamara is giving a free public talk at 6.30pm at The University of Queensland on Wednesday 19 October.

She’s also visiting All Hallows School in Brisbane for a talk to students in the afternoon.

The Australian Institute of Physics Women in Physics Lecture Tour celebrates the contribution of women to advances in physics.

For interviews contact Tamara Davis on 0432 526 989

  • Tour details, locations and school contacts at
  • More about Tamara including photos and video and at Tamara’s Home
  • More information on WiggleZ Dark Energy Survey:
  • For further information call Margie Beilharz on 0415 448 065.

The education revolution that drives science and builds nations

Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt on the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

He came to this country from the US partly because of its unique position and facilities. But Australia has matured since then, says our newest Nobel Laureate, astronomer Brian Schmidt. He is optimistic about the future for Australian science and the contribution it can make to improving lives, in this country and the world. Here is an edited version of a speech he gave at the presentation of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Awards for Science at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday 12 October.

Despite my accent, I have lived in Canberra longer than anywhere else in my life. A lot has changed in the past 17 years. When I arrived in Australia in 1994, it was a well-off country separated by vast oceans from the rest of the world. Today, Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, gateway to the fastest growing part of the world economically, Asia.

It has come of age. The world is rapidly changing, and Australia is in a unique position to shape its future for the century ahead.

Eleven years ago I stood up on this podium—as the recipient of the first Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year—in complete wonderment of the moment. I feel that same wonderment tonight, as we salute Australia’s finest scientists and science educators

When I came to this country, Australia didn’t have a science awards night dedicated to its own researchers. Now, we celebrate our nation’s best scientists and educators on our own terms.

Read the full speech online at

Australian “Immortal” documentary wins international film festival prize

Melbourne-based production companies December Media and Pemberton Films are pleased to announce that their documentary Immortal (known as Decoding Immortality in the USA), a co-production with Smithsonian Networks, SBS and National Geographic International, has won its category at the prestigious Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival 2011.

The blue-chip science documentary, written and directed by Sonya Pemberton and produced by Tony Wright, came first in the Best Science & Nature Program category (sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute).

Immortal shows the astonishing discovery made by a team of scientists led by Australian-born Professor Elizabeth Blackburn: a key to unlimited life and endless youth in cells. Deep in the DNA of a humble pond creature, Professor Blackburn co-discovered an “immortalising” enzyme— a chemical catalyst that can keep cells young forever. But this is no simple “cure” for ageing— for the same enzyme that fuels endless youth also fuels cancer. The documentary reveals the inner workings of this biological paradox and its remarkable impact on ageing, disease and cancer.

The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival finalists were selected from over 800 entries from 50 countries by a prestigious jury including Caroline Brett, Natalie Cash, Liesl Clark, David Elisco and Harvey Locke.

Immortal has already won a string of other awards. It was a finalist in the 2011 Eureka Prize for Science Journalism and for the ParisScience Grand Prix, won the Special Jury Award at the Remi Awards, and the Best Science and Best Education categories at Montana Cine. The documentary has screened at over a dozen festivals including BANFF, Houston Worldfest, the International Scientific Film Festival in Hungary, Scinema Australia, and Pariscience.

Last month, director Sonya Pemberton started a new joint venture company, Genepool Productions, with Cordell Jigsaw Productions, Australia. Genepool will specialise in creating quality science programming for the global television market.

For this story only contact Sonya Pemberton, Genepool Productions, +61 417 271 696,

For all the other stories call me.