Using diet to cope with the aftermath of stroke

Centenary, Media releases

Connie Wong 1_LR$25,000 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize goes to young Melbourne researcher

One of Australia’s most creative young medical researchers has won a $25,000 prize to help her develop her ideas on how diet could prevent stroke deaths.

Connie Wong thinks we may be able to prevent early deaths following stroke with a fibre-based diet. She initially used innovative microscope techniques to determine how stroke weakens the immune system. Now she is studying how it also induces leakiness in the gut wall, leading to infection and an upsurge in deaths. And the solution may well lie in diet.

For her proposed ambitious and innovative research program, Dr Wong of the Department of Immunology at Monash University received this year’s $25,000 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize at a ceremony hosted by UBS in Sydney.

Stroke is the second leading cause of mortality in Australia, resulting in more than 10% of all deaths. Of the survivors, over 60% die within a year or become dependent on others. The cost to the community annually is more than $2 billion. “So any increase in understanding the mechanisms and consequences of stroke that results in more efficient treatment could have enormous social and economic benefits,” says Dr Wong.

In a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary in Canada, Connie showed that stroke triggers a release of compounds by the nervous system, seemingly to reduce the level of inflammation in the brain. But this is at the cost of weakening the response of the immune system to infection generally.

Connie Wong 7

Connie Wong from Monash University (credit: Ms Linda Mason)

In particular, Connie found that these compounds change the behaviour of the white blood cells known as invariant natural killer T cells. As a result the body becomes increasingly susceptible to infection after a stroke, and that correlates with a subsequent upsurge in deaths from infectious diseases.

Now Connie wants to investigate a linked observation that the gut wall becomes more permeable immediately following a stroke, allowing normally harmless gut bacteria to move into the body where they can initiate infection. She suspects that the combination of the leakiness of the gut and the reduced ability of the immune system to guard against bacteria, and that may be the cause of increased vulnerability to infection after a stroke. She now wants to explore if this can be alleviated by an appropriate, fibre-based diet.

“Exceptional young scientists can be hard to keep in Australia and we hope this award will not only celebrate their achievements but also encourage a domestic culture of brilliance in this truly important field,” says Centenary Institute Executive Director, Professor Mathew Vadas AO.

The two other finalists who each received $5,000 to go towards their research, were:

  • Dr William (Will) Ritchie from the Centenary Institute, who has used statistics to unmask a molecular mechanism that cells use to regulate the levels of individual proteins. Future development of this work could lead to drug therapies for leukaemia, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiac disease and liver cancer. He is now modifying his statistical tool to allow medical laboratories to detect the new mechanism— intron retention—quickly and easily.
  • Dr Anne Abbott from Monash University, who is transforming the prevention of carotid artery stroke. She has shown that a healthy lifestyle and medication are now better than surgery or stenting for preventing stroke in patients with symptomless narrowing of the carotid artery. But that wasn’t enough. She’s has successfully campaigned to get the international medical establishment to update health policy, guidelines and practice.

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is awarded for creative biomedical research excellence. Since 2011, the prize has had nine finalists and more than 30 semi-finalists.

“We believe the prize has identified a core of Australia’s creative talent and created an alumni of young medical researchers who are not only aware of current issues but are not afraid to attack tomorrow’s problems,” said Professor Vadas.