Healthy boost for medical research

12 Nov 2010

The health industry of the future could involve growing therapeutic drugs in seeds and fighting tumours with scorpion venom, after these and other projects from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) were funded in the latest National Health and Medical Research Council grants.

IMB researchers received over $6 million in NHMRC grants, more than a fifth of UQ’s total of around $29 million. Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Max Lu congratulated the recipients and thanked the NHMRC for its continued support of Australian medical research.

“How best to prevent, cure and manage diseases and disabilities can only be found through rigorous research, and that process comes at a significant cost,” Professor Lu said.

“I thank our researchers for dedicating their careers to addressing the health and medical problems that currently reduce Australians’ quality of life and life expectancy.

“I also thank the NHMRC, which supports the quest to find practical solutions to complex health issues.”

Professor Melissa Little and Dr Nick Hamilton from IMB received $691,310 to study kidney development so as to improve our understanding of chronic kidney disease, a growing burden to the health system that costs the Australian economy $1.8 billion per annum.

The long-term health of kidneys is influenced before birth by the number of nephrons, the working units of the kidney, that form. Professor Little and her team will investigate the stem cells that form the nephrons, how the process occurs and how it can be influenced.

The information they uncover may enable researchers to develop methods of increasing the number of nephrons to reduce the risk of kidney disease in later life for at-risk populations, including the Aboriginal community. Professor Little is also an investigator on a $627,00 grant with Dr Karen Mortiz looking at the effect of lower oxygen levels on kidney development.

$689,784 went to Professor Matt Cooper, who is developing new antibiotics to treat bacteria. Many species have developed new resistance mechanisms, meaning the most common antibiotics can no longer protect patients from serious, life-threatening infection.

Professor Cooper and his team will convert two existing antibiotics into more powerful drugs that target resistant bacteria such as golden staph and NDM-1 superbugs. They aim to deliver these antibiotics to undergo human clinical trials within five years.

Professor David Craik and Dr Norelle Daly received $511,299 to develop a molecule from scorpion venom as a tool for helping surgeons remove tumours.

The ability of a surgeon to distinguish between cancerous and healthy cells at the margin of a tumour is imprecise. Dr Daly and Professor Craik will explore the potential of using a scorpion toxin that selectively targets cancer cells in tumour surgery.

Chlorotoxin, a small protein originally discovered in the venom of Leuirus quinquestriatus scorpions, binds to cancer cells. When mixed with near-infrared fluorescent molecules, it could allow surgeons to see small clumps of cancer cells that are undetectable in visible light.

The researchers will use the grant to improve the potential of the chlorotoxin molecule by ensuring it can survive in the body.

“Although chlorotoxin has significant potential as an imaging tool, it has a relatively short life in the body,” Professor Craik said. “We will seek to stabilise the molecule by making it into a circular protein framework.”

The technique could be used on a range of solid tumours, particularly brain cancer, which is heavily influenced by the success of surgical procedures. More than 80 percent of malignant brain tumours recur at the surgical margins.

Dr Josh Mylne and Professor David Craik received $367,524 to see if they can develop seeds as ‘factories’ for producing drugs that treat cancer and pain.

The team has recently discovered a mechanism in plants that produces circular peptides (small proteins). They will co-opt this natural mechanism to produce circular peptide drugs that could be used to treat prostate cancer and chronic neuropathic pain.

“Peptides have long been considered promising to treat diseases, but they have faced some obstacles to being adopted as drugs,” Dr Mylne said. “They break down easily in the body and they are expensive to produce.”

Circular drugs made in plants solve both problems. Being circular makes these peptides more stable so they can survive in the body long enough to reach their target. Being made in plants addresses costs, as seeds are cheap to grow.

“Seeds are an established, low-tech, inexpensive production system, and will allow manufacturing to also take place in developing nations that lack the usual infrastructure to produce drugs.

“Ultimately we envision the ingestion of engineered seed-produced drugs as a palatable, acceptable and inexpensive way of taking medicine for chronic diseases.”

Other IMB projects to receive funding were:

Dr Kelly Smith - $419,615 to identify the genes which, when malfunctioning, are responsible for prenatal heart defects.

Professor Mike Waters and Dr Andrew Brooks - $546,732 to study permanently activated growth hormone receptors. These proteins are able to promote growth without the presence of growth hormone, which could be useful for tissue repair and aquaculture.

Dr Richard Clark - $352,524 to study a hormone that regulates iron in humans.

Dr Benjamin Hogan - $387,931 to investigate genes that regulate the formation of lymphatic vessels, which are important in a number of diseases including lymphoedema and cancer.

Professor Glenn King - $558,390 to develop potent blockers of acid-sensing ion channels for treating patients suffering from chronic pain, and another $558,390 to develop new antibiotics to treat resistant strains of golden staph and related bacteria.

Professor Richard Lewis - $400,470 to investigate a new approach to understanding how to design better drugs.

Professor Alpha Yap - $573,390 to understand adhesion between cells, a process that holds the human body together and affects many aspects of our health.

Media: Penny Robinson at UQ Communications (07 3365 9723, or Bronwyn Adams at IMB Communications (07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247)