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More ‘good cells’, safer treatments for leukemia patients

Associate Professor Siok Tey.
Credit: QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital

Associate Professor Siok Tey is researching treatments that will improve the survival and quality of life for her patients with leukaemia or other blood cancers.

“Bone marrow transplantation is an important form of treatment for blood cancers, but it cures only two-thirds of patients,” says Siok, a clinician researcher at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital.

Siok will use her $55,000 Metcalf Prize to improve the outcomes of bone marrow transplantation, which rebuilds the blood and immune systems to protect patients from leukaemia relapse. Not all patients, however, stay in long-term remission, and the treatment often comes with serious side effects.

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Making a virtual human cell to explore how we’re made and how we can regenerate damaged organs

Dr Pengyi Yang. Credit: Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI)

 Dr Pengyi Yang plans to transform stem cell research.

“Today’s stem cell treatments have been the product of trial and error. My virtual stem cell will allow us to understand what’s happening inside a single stem cell that makes it decide what type of cell it will become, be it hair, skin, muscle, nerve, blood or other.”

He is mapping the many, complex influences that control stem cells and how they specialise into different cell types.

Pengyi is based at the Children’s Medical Research Institute and at The University of Sydney. He aims to remove much of the guess work from stem cell science and eventually stem cell medicine.

In recognition of his leadership in the field, Pengyi has received one of two annual $55,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.

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Faster treatments for future pandemics

Associate Professor Daniel Watterson, The University of Queensland
2022 CSL Centenary Fellow

Portrait of 2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Professor Daniel Watterson (Photo credit: The University of Queensland)

Associate Professor Daniel Watterson, at The University of Queensland will use his $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship to develop new ways of rapidly generating treatments to respond to future viral pandemics as they arise.

Viruses have always intrigued him. “They are the most basic form of life, and can help us understand how life works at a fundamental level. We can use that knowledge to develop new therapies and vaccines to save lives,” Daniel says.

Over the past decade Daniel has worked to understand and combat many viruses responsible for human suffering including Dengue, Zika, West Nile and influenza.  

Vaccines have been central to the fight against viral diseases. But the challenge for many viral vaccines is to present the viral spike proteins in precisely the right shape to trigger our immune systems to develop a strong response.

Typically, when spike proteins are made without the rest of the virus, they lose their shape. Daniel is one of the three inventors of the molecular clamp, a technology that holds a virus spike protein in its original form so that an effective immune response can be generated.

He developed the technology working with Professor Paul Young and Associate Professor Keith Chappell at The University of Queensland.

“Through my work with the molecular clamp and COVID-19, I learnt is that vaccines aren’t enough. We also need the capability to develop new therapies to protect the health system and the wider community until vaccines become available,” Daniel says.  

He believes the molecular clamp can enable rapid development of such anti-viral drugs. “We’re taking a leaf out of how the human body responds to a new virus. It first creates antibodies that are broadly reactive and can actually prevent infection from a range of different viruses.”

“We’ll be able to repurpose the molecular clamp to identify anti-viral antibodies, make them in the form equivalent to that found when the body responds to a completely novel viral threat, and deliver them to patients using mRNA” Daniel says.

“The $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship gives me the freedom to step back and take a bigger picture look at how we can tackle viruses. I believe we will be able to develop new therapies against emerging viral pathogens before they’re able to become anything like a pandemic.”


Photographs of Daniel Watterson

Portrait of 2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Professor Daniel Watterson (Photo credit: The University of Queensland)
Portrait of 2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Professor Daniel Watterson (Photo credit: The University of Queensland)
Professor Daniel Watterson
Portrait of 2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Professor Daniel Watterson (Photo credit: CSL)
Daniel Watterson
2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Professor Daniel Watterson at work in his lab (Photo credit: CSL)

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Investigating the DNA factory in our bodies that makes … just about everything

Dr Stephin Vervoort, WEHI and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
2022 CSL Centenary Fellow

Stephin Vervoort

Dr Stephin Vervoort will use his CSL Centenary Fellowship to unravel fundamental steps in transcription of DNA into mRNA, and then apply that knowledge to identify possible small-molecule drugs to attack acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and other hard to treat cancers.

“We used to regard gene regulation as a fairly simple on/off system. We now know that things are much more complicated,” Stephin says.

“Now we understand that there’s a multi-layered regulatory network that controls when and where genes should be activated. It’s critical for normal development. In fact, when this regulatory system breaks, it can result in disease.”

Stephin studies a vital component of this network – RNA polymerase II. He describes it as a molecular factory. It transcribes DNA into mRNA and its work is regulated by many molecular factors.

“What we’ve also come to realise is that recurrent mutations in the key components that regulate this machine are causal factors for many blood cancers.

In particular, this dysregulation of transcription is a feature of AML. And these cancers are difficult to manage and treat.

Stephin’s passion is to deepen our understanding of transcriptional regulation and to apply it to cancer.

He joined Professor Ricky Johnstone’s team at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in 2015, where he established genome-wide investigations in transcription.

Now, with the support of the CSL Centenary Fellowship, he is setting up his own laboratory at WEHI where he plans to get to the heart of the matter. “I want to understand how RNA polymerase II works in a comprehensive and systemic manner,” he says.

“Then I want to understand how this is dysregulated in cancer. And finally I want to use that knowledge to identify possible small-molecule drugs that could target AML and other cancers.”

It’s a bold, multidisciplinary plan that will bring together molecular biology, state-of-the-art genomics, bioinformatics and small-molecule inhibitors. “Over the next decade, I hope my work will benefit cancer patients significantly by opening up new treatment avenues that have the potential to increase survival and improve overall quality of life,” Stephin says.


Photographs of Stephin Vervoort

Stephin Vervoort
2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Dr Stephin Vervoort at WEHI (Photo credit: CSL)
Stephin Vervoort
2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Dr Stephin Vervoort at WEHI (Photo credit: CSL)
Stephin Varvoort
Portrait of 2022 CSL Centenary Fellow Dr Stephin Vervoort (Photo credit: CSL)

Video

Australians find owl hunting good for science and soul under lockdown

12,000 Powerful, Barking, Boobook, Barn, and Masked owl calls found so far

Media contacts: Ben Keirnan, ben@scienceinpublic.com.au or 0408 184 858; or Tanya Ha, tanya@scienceinpublic.com.au or 0404 083 863.

Is that a dog barking? Or a Barking owl?

Hundreds of Australians have found thousands of owl calls by listening to short recordings made in nature reserves. 

They’re helping researchers identify and map native Australian owl species through the Hoot Detective project.

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Hot earth, whale songs, science meets footy, the sourdough craze, and more

Sunday 22 August 2021

Highlights from the final day of National Science Week

117 events and exhibitions, 82 online activities, and dozens of great stories and talent.

Researchers, experts, and other interesting people available for interview around the country.

  • VIC: Climate change remedies
  • SA: Science at the footy
  • QLD: Save whales, but do we want to save sharks?
  • NSW: Bizarre ancient fish
  • NSW: The science of Sydney’s biggest backyard
  • TAS: An obsession with sourdough
  • WA: How do we future-proof agriculture?

Read on for more on these, including event contact details.

Also today:

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A Blue New Deal for oceans, hacking Minecraft, LEGO goes astro, and more

Saturday 21 August 2021

Highlights from day eight of National Science Week

197 events and exhibitions, 103 online activities, and dozens of great stories and talent.

Researchers, experts, and other interesting people available for interview around the country.

  • NSW: An ocean defender to the rescue
  • TAS: Hacking Minecraft, insect worlds, and cuddly animals at the Festival of Bright Ideas
  • VIC: A VR view of the Universe
  • QLD: Dive into the Great Barrier Reef without getting wet
  • NSW: CSI wildlife
  • ACT: Understanding the Universe through LEGO

Read on for more on these, including event contact details.

Also today:

Coming up tomorrow:

Hot earth, whale songs, science meets footy, sourdough, and more – see a preview of Sunday’s highlights.

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Ending COVID-19, lighter x-rays, safe vaccines, and a teddy bear goes under the knife

Friday 20 August 2021

Highlights from day seven of National Science Week

262 events and exhibitions, 131 online activities, and dozens of great stories and talent.

Researchers, experts, and other interesting people available for interview around the country.

  • NSW: Quashing pandemics
  • TAS: Hacking Minecraft, insect worlds, and cuddly animals at the Festival of Bright Ideas
  • NSW: What 60,000 years of Indigenous knowledge tells us about the night sky
  • TAS: What dissecting a teddy reveals about plastic and waste
  • VIC: How quickly can you make a safe vaccine?
  • SA: Space sci-fi fact and fiction
  • SA: Lighter, faster, portable x-rays
  • VIC: The blind artist making books you can read with your eyes closed

Read on for more on these, including event contact details.

Also today:

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Help for addicts, speedy space travel, protecting Aussie critters, hot penguins, and more

Thursday 19 August 2021

Highlights from day six of National Science Week

302 events and exhibitions, 162 online activities, and dozens of great stories and talent.

Researchers, experts, and other interesting people available for interview around the country.

  • NSW: Understanding addiction
  • VIC: How will wildlife cope with climate change?
  • NSW: Alternatives to meditation
  • VIC: Australia’s weirdest mammal
  • QLD: Nuclear testing fallout

Read on for more on these, including event contact details.

Also today:

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Lockdown science

Wednesday 18 August

Get through lockdown with science.

You and your family can contribute to real research projects without leaving home:

  • help map Aussie owls by listening to their calls
  • classify the coral, sand and sea creatures in the Great Barrier Reef.

Or you can explore:

  • virtually dive into the sea with Giant Australian Cuttlefish
  • or build the Universe Lego brick by Lego brick.

You can make your own hand sanitiser, or a lava lamp, or a marshmallow bridge.

You can find peace of mind with alternatives to meditation and mindfulness.

You can discover the future of no-kill meat, or Sydney’s backyard biodiversity.

You can explore nine forces of the Universe through the ABC series Phenomena on YouTube. Or just chill out with the dance mix on iView.

For more information read on or contact:

▪ Tanya Ha: tanya@scienceinpublic.com.au or 0404 083 863
▪ Niall Byrne: niall@scienceinpublic.com.au or 0417 131 977 or 03 9398 1416.

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