A Dalek in your head; cars with arms; how viruses kill livers

Media bulletins

Three stories today from Geelong, Melbourne and Sydney.

Melbourne: A Dalek in your head, first light after 20 years of darkness, a new manufacturing industry. A bionic ear user who speaks six languages; a blind women who has seen cloud-like images after 20 years of total darkness; Simon McKeon’s vision of a new manufacturing future. All three are speaking at a forum marking 30 years of the Bionics Institute in Melbourne this evening. They’re all available for interviews today and tomorrow.

Geelong: Carbon fibre cars are great until you hit something. A young Deakin researcher has published a way of making carbon fibre so it is stronger and more crash resistant. She’s one of Australia’s FameLab national finalists. She says cars can be lighter, faster and stronger – but they need more arms. Her treatment for carbon fibre makes it stronger by forming extra chemical ‘arms’ that grip onto its surroundings.

Sydney: How viruses can overwhelm the liver’s defences – and how the liver’s troops might be revived. The liver is the only organ in the body that can modify our immune response. This, paradoxically, leaves it open to violent immune attack. Researchers at Sydney’s Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney have now discovered the means by which this happens. In the process they may have opened a pathway towards improving treatment of chronic hepatitis.

In this bulletin:

Life-changing bionics start with Dalek voices and flashes of light

The first 30 years of bionics in Melbourne; transforming lives, creating jobs

Two people whose lives have been changed by the work of Melbourne’s Bionics Institute are available for interview ahead of the Bionics Institute lecture today.

The lecture marks the beginning of celebrations of 30 years of the Bionics Institute and of the development of the Institute’s 30/30 vision.

First it was hearing

When JOAV NIRAN received a cochlear implant ten years ago, the initial sounds at ‘switch on’ were “like a Dalek talking inside your head”. But the human brain learns remarkably quickly, and once he’d adapted, Joav’s hearing allowed a reconnection with family, friends and with people he meets while travelling. He’s rediscovered his passion for music, retains an uncanny ability to identify accents, and he continues to learn new languages.

Australia’s cochlear implant has been a proven success, with over 200,000 recipients and 70 per cent share of the global market. And every one is made in Australia by Cochlear in Sydney.

Now: sight

DIANNE ASHWORTH became closely involved with the Bionics Institute through Bionic Vision Australia’s bionic eye project two years ago, and describes that very first glimpse of vision after 20 years of complete darkness as “a little flash at first, then different shapes, dark black lines and white lines, splotches of black and white, and cloud-like images”. Di has been an enthusiastic participant as the technology has been improved, including mobile trials, where she has successfully navigated obstacles with a headset-mounted camera and computer backpack. It’s still a proof of concept, but the bionic eye has already progressed to trials of advanced technology that could provide recipients with real independence.

Tomorrow: devices for Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and other disorders

The Bionics Institute is developing next-generation ‘deep brain stimulation’ neurobionic technology that will help sufferers of Parkinson’s disease control tremors and maintain their balance and devices that will detect a coming epileptic seizure and suppress it.

Also speaking at the lecture: SIMON McKEON – CSIRO Chairman, former Australian of the Year, and Chair of the McKeon Review into health and medical research. Simon will explain how these technologies – one proven, and the others beginning their journey – illustrate the human and commercial benefits of investment in medical research and in particular medical devices.

More information and photos available at: www.scienceinpublic.com.au/other/bionics

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How viruses can overwhelm the liver’s defences

And how the liver’s troops might be revived

Scientists available for interview: Tuesday 17 July

The liver is the only organ in the body that can modify our immune response. This, paradoxically, leaves it open to violent immune attack.

Researchers at Sydney’s Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney have now discovered the means by which this happens. In the process they may have opened a pathway towards improving treatment of chronic hepatitis.

The key is in the way the immune system’s T cells operate in the liver.

The researchers found that when the liver T cells encounter a small number of cells making a foreign protein, they function in the normal way-stimulating the production of cells to kill off the source of the protein.

But when they encounter large amounts of foreign protein beyond a certain threshold, the T cells are overwhelmed and fail. This weakening of the defence system is the Achilles heel of the liver, making it more susceptible to invasion by viruses that replicate rapidly and produce large amounts of protein.

“That’s what we think happens when a virus such as hepatitis B or C invades the liver,” says Dr Patrick Bertolino, co-head with Dr David Bowen of Centenary’s Liver Immunology Research Group. “The viruses multiply very fast, spreading to many liver cells, and in doing so they force a high proportion of them to make huge amounts of protein.”

If this process could be slowed or delayed on initial infection, the researchers believe that the immune system would have a much better chance of clearing the virus – as it already does in about 30 per cent of cases of hepatitis C.

Their work, which was undertaken in collaboration with the Children’s Medical Research Institute at the Westmead Hospital, has just been published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In earlier studies, the Centenary research team found that the liver is the only place in the body outside of the lymph nodes with the capacity to activate T cells.

But, in contrast to the lymph nodes, the T cells activated by the liver do not function efficiently and most of them are eliminated. By this means, the liver can damp down immune system activity.

Bertolino says the next step in this work is to see if T cells, exhausted by high concentrations of viral protein, can be rescued in some way. The group has already shown in mice that it is possible to revive such overwhelmed cells within the first week after they have encountered a high amount of protein in the liver.

In 2011 about 209,000 people were living with hepatitis B infection in Australia resulting in about 382 deaths, according to a 2012 report from the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales. The equivalent figures for hepatitis C are 304,000 resulting in about 380 deaths.

More information and photos available at: www.scienceinpublic.com.au/centenary/paradox

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Cars can be lighter, faster, stronger – but they need more arms

Scientist available for interview today

Lighter-weight, fuel-efficient cars may be closer to reality thanks to Geelong researchers who are giving carbon fibre the gripping power it needs to be able to stand up to impacts from motorists.

High-performance vehicles already use carbon fibre – a high-strength lightweight material that can be moulded into complex shapes – to make cars lighter, more fuel-efficient and faster.

But although strong, carbon fibre is prone to damage from sudden impact. And unlike metal, it can’t be repaired – only replaced.

This factor has limited the material’s uptake by the wider automotive industry, as the common bingle would end up costing motorists a lot more to fix.

Ms Linden Servinis, a PhD student at Deakin University, and her colleagues have developed a treatment for carbon fibre that makes it 16 per cent stronger by forming extra chemical ‘arms’ that grip onto its surroundings, allowing the material to withstand greater impacts.

“The carbon fibre composite materials we work with are made of black hair-like carbon fibres weaved together and coated in hard plastic,” explains Linden – a FameLab Australia national finalist.

“They’re extremely light-weight and stronger than steel, but in the event of impact damage, like in a car crash, the individual fibres break free of the plastic and the strength is lost.

“But we’ve found a way to help the fibres hold together – we’ve given them extra chemical arms to grab on to eachother and hold on to their plastic casing.”

Linden and her colleagues discovered that large sections of the carbon fibre surface, which were previously thought to be useless, are actually an untapped resource for chemical reactions where extra ‘arms’ can be grown.

By creating a less damage-prone material, Linden hopes to increase the likelihood of wider carbon fibre uptake by the automotive industry.

“If we can get more carbon fibre into cars, they’ll be lighter and more-fuel efficient, which is going to be really important in developing the cars of the future,” says Linden.

Their research also shines light on further possibilities for altering a range of carbon fibre surfaces.

Increasingly used in aerospace, high-performance automotive, sporting, and oil and gas industries, carbon fibre materials are replacing traditional materials such as steel and aluminium.

FameLab is a global science communication competition for early-career scientists. Linden was the runner-up of the Victorian state competition, and she competed in the national final in May.

Media release, background and photos available at: www.scienceinpublic.com.au/fresh/carbonfibre

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