Tom says

I was growing up in Melbourne at the same time that the Sydney Opera House was being built and maybe because of that, often think about the wow factor of Sydney. So I was surprised at a party in Sydney recently to be told by Sydneysiders what a great place Melbourne is – even though we don’t have a Harbour Bridge and it can be cold at any time of the year.

What they mentioned was Melbourne’s cultural liveliness and its superiority in science and innovation, especially medical research. Of course, the reality is that it is all of Australia, not just Sydney and Melbourne, that is great to live in and our health care and life expectancy are strong drivers of our standard of living. Medical research in turn is an essential element in outstanding health care.

Medicine is always changing due to research and I have just been to a conference about the future of health care. This included presentations on the impact of our genomes being sequenced, the rise of artificial intelligence and digital humans, the possibilities of preventing ageing through stem cell technologies, the use of digital technologies to support high tech medicine in remote and developing regions, the role of the immune system in preventing dementia, the impact of the microbiome and its influence on mental health, even the benefits of microdosing with psychedelic drugs derived from mushrooms – well, the conference was in California after all.

We at SVI can be your navigator as well as explorer and problem solver in many of these areas. For example, we are working closely with St Vincent’s Hospital and BreastScreen radiologists on artificial intelligence in mammography; we are developing a sophisticated test for a blood borne virus to be rolled out in remote indigenous communities; and we are working closely with industry on new immune approaches to dementia treatment.

Along with finding new treatments, above all we are interested in fostering talent. We have seen this year the power of philanthropy in inspiring the best in our young researchers –  you can read in this issue of The Edman about some of our ‘Rising Stars’ – including Dr Jacki Heraud-Farlow, who has just been announced as the second recipient of the Christine Martin Fellowship, sponsored by 5point Foundation, and Hanna Fluhler, a young American nursing student who has joined us as the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to work with researchers in our Genome Stability Unit. 

As the year comes to a close, on behalf of everyone at SVI, I would like to thank you all for your support, which is key to the success of our research. I wish you and your families a happy holiday season and look forward to keeping in touch in the year to come.

Christine Martin Fellowship awarded

Dr Jacki Heraud-Farlow, from SVI’s Cancer & RNA Biology Laboratory, has been named as the second recipient of the Christine Martin Fellowship, funded by 5point Foundation. The Fellowship has been designed specifically to support an outstanding female researcher working at SVI who has experienced a career disruption.

Jacki is one of SVI’s ‘Rising Stars’, recognised for her excellence as an early career researcher both at the Institute and further afield. Her work is focused on a genetic condition called Aicardi-Goutières Syndrome, which affects young children and results in severe mental and physical handicap and early death.

The Fellowship is funded by the philanthropic 5point Foundation and was named in honour of Christine Martin, the late wife of former Director, Professor Jack Martin.

Mr Martin McIntosh, Chair of 5point Foundation, says that the Foundation’s vision – to positively impact the health, wellbeing and education of children and families – mirrors the values that Christine Martin held.

Asked about the significance of the Fellowship for her, Jacki says, “This award recognises that it is tough to stay in research when you have a young family. I love what I do and see it as a privilege. I have three beautiful daughters, a 5-year old and 2-year old twins. And I’m really proud that they get to see their mum doing a job which she is passionate about and makes a difference. I’m also really excited about the research I’m doing; there is currently no treatment for Aicardi-Goutières Syndrome, but I hope that my research can shed light on the disease. This Fellowship gives me the gift of time to focus on what matters.”

Fulbright scholar joins SVI

Hannah Fluhler, a nursing and Honors student from Ball State University in Indiana, has recently joined SVI’s Genome Stability Unit as a Fulbright Scholar. She chose Associate Professor Andrew Deans’ group because of her personal connection to the research focus of his lab, Fanconi Anaemia, a rare inherited bone marrow disorder.

“In high school, I babysat a little girl named Aria who passed away from Fanconi Anaemia shortly before her 5th birthday. Aria became the root of my passion for helping others in the medical field and for Fanconi research. That definitely informed my decision to choose SVI for my placement,” said Hannah. “It gives me the opportunity to collaborate with world-class researchers, as well as physicians on the St Vincent’s campus.” 

 “Hannah has a unique background that will bring a fresh perspective to research in our lab. Because she has worked extensively with sick children, she knows first-hand what a difference new research discoveries might make to a child’s life,” says Andrew.

The Lupus challenge

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system inadvertently recognises the body’s tissues as foreign. This causes the production of autoantibodies that can result in a range of clinical symptoms, from rashes, to arthritis, to kidney failure.

Many risk factors have been implicated in lupus development. The inheritance of genes alone is not sufficient for developing lupus, which suggests that environmental factors likely influence disease occurrence.

Associate Professor Mark Chong has recently embarked upon a research project in which he aims to explore the role of the environment in the development of lupus.

Mark says, “Environmental factors are thought to push individuals over the line from just being genetically ‘at risk’, to developing full-blown lupus. Indeed, increasingly there are reports of environment affecting the development of a range of autoimmune diseases."

“Circumstantial evidence also suggests there is the possibility that parental exposure to environmental factors might affect disease outcomes in their children.” Mark’s research project will look specifically at this question of ‘transgenerational’ effects of the environment in a mouse model of lupus.

“Ultimately, if we can make a link with specific environmental factors, we can potentially reduce disease incidence by reducing exposure,” Mark says.

“Furthermore, if we can determine how such environmental factors actually increase the likelihood of the disease occurring at the molecular level, then this understanding will point to targets for therapeutic intervention.”

This research is supported by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs of the United States Department of Defense.

Anita shares her story

Anita was 19 when she was diagnosed with lupus.

“I was in my second year of university when I started suffering from mild joint aches and stiffness, which worsened dramatically. My paralysis became so severe one day that I was stuck halfway up the staircase in my house, not able to move up or down. My father had to lift me down the stairs.  

All the joints in my body from my knuckles in my fingers to my vertebrae were so inflamed that I was paralysed. It took a number of doctors and many blood tests before I got an accurate diagnosis of lupus.

I have always been a very active and healthy person, so to learn I had something wrong with me was very confronting. I experienced long periods of severe depression during my recovery.

My family was so supportive; I required constant care when I came out of hospital until I could walk and move again. It was a very difficult time for them as they were fearful for my future.

Eventually, coming off the medication became an important goal; it took years of patience and dedication from both my specialist and myself. During recovery I discovered yoga, which has become a significant part of my life as a consequence. I have now been in remission since 2006.

More research will ensure that people suffering with this condition can live normal and pain free lives and in best case scenarios like mine, move into, and hopefully remain, in remission.”

Special delivery: islets for Hayley

When Dr Tom Loudovaris embarks upon a human islet isolation for transplantation, there is a lot at stake.

The process begins when Tom and his team receive a pancreas that has been removed from an organ donor. The organ is ready to have its major components separated by Tom and his team, while a recipient with type 1 diabetes remains on standby to receive the resulting insulin-producing islets. This treatment generally frees the recipient from dependence on insulin injections.

On the 25th of July, 2019 even more was a stake for Tom and his team. An esky was delivered to SVI, containing the pancreas of eight-year-old Perth schoolgirl, Hayley Minson-Rivers. Hayley had been in and out of hospital her entire life due to the complications of chronic pancreatitis.

Hayley is one of the several hundred Australian children who live with hereditary pancreatitis, and one of the first to receive a treatment known as a pancreatectomy islet auto-transplant.

Hayley’s pancreas was removed at the Women's and Children's Hospital in Adelaide during a painstaking 6-hour surgery. Her pancreas was then bagged, placed in an esky and flown to Melbourne.

When Tom and his team got the package, they began the 4-hour islet isolation procedure in specially designed containment hoods within SVI’s Susan Alberti Islet Isolation Facility.

After thorough decontamination and trimming, Tom positioned a thin, flexible tube in the pancreatic duct and placed the tissue in a tray where it was injected with an enzyme. Keeping the tissue and surroundings at 4 degrees, Tom dissected the pancreas into 1-2 cm pieces and transferred it to a chamber containing a special mesh. He increased the temperature of the chamber to 37 degrees to activate the enzyme, which then started to digest the tissue. After 30 minutes, the pancreas had broken down into pieces that could pass through the mesh and the precious cells were collected and washed.

As a result of this process, Hayley’s pancreas, which weighed about 50 grams, was reduced to a 100ml suspension of tissue, then transferred to an infusion bag.

After testing to make sure it was safe to be infused back into Hayley, the cells were flown back to Adelaide where the bag was attached to a tube that infused the cells into the portal vein of Hayley’s liver, some 12 hours after the surgery first began. There the islets lodged in their new home and within a short amount of time began producing the insulin required to keep Hayley’s blood sugar levels within the normal limits.

Tom says, “These cells are particularly precious because we only get one go at this – there really is a lot at stake. My son Christopher has type 1 diabetes, so I know what it means to live every day walking the tightrope of managing your own insulin levels. Being part of the team that works to ensure these kids avoid having to live with type 1 diabetes is hugely rewarding.”

Next step in Alzheimers disease treatment

Effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have proven elusive to the international medical research community.

In August, SVI announced the extension of a research and licensing collaboration agreement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc, one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, with a focus on Alzheimer’s disease treatment. The collaboration was facilitated by Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

Following the generation of promising data from ongoing SVI research, Janssen chose to exercise its option in the 2017 agreement, under which Janssen will be responsible for all future development of small molecule modulators of microglial function and inflammation targeting Alzheimer’s disease severity.

What this means is that Janssen’s research will now look at developing new drugs to target cells in the brain which are able to preserve and protect the function of neurons damaged in Alzheimer's disease. 

SVI’s lead researcher Professor Michael Parker, Head of SVI’s Structural Biology Unit, said, “Much of our knowledge of disease has come from an improved understanding of the structure and function of proteins. This gives us the best possibility of designing new drugs and treatment strategies for Alzheimer’s disease.”

“We’re encouraged by the drug discovery data achieved in this collaboration with Janssen and hope this research may extend the promise of future therapies for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.”

This is the first time the global healthcare giant has extended a collaboration with an Australian research institution into an effort to develop and commercialise a product. Under the agreement SVI is eligible to receive development milestone payments as well as royalties, in addition to the option exercise fee.

“I am pleased that the research collaboration undertaken during the past few years between SVI and Janssen has been such a success. As project partners, it is very satisfying to see that the research outcomes have given them the confidence to take the research program further,” said Tom Kay.

There is an urgent need to develop disease modifying treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, with around 44 million people worldwide currently afflicted by dementia and prevalence expected to triple over the next 40 years as people live longer.

About Alzheimer’s disease

A degenerative brain condition, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, characterised by memory loss and increasingly impaired cognitive function. It is most commonly diagnosed in people over 65 years of age, although an early-onset variant may occur earlier. In 2017, it was estimated that the costs of dementia in Australia will reach $14.67 billion.

Researcher snapshot

PhD student Martha Blank from SVI’s Bone Cell Biology & Disease Unit was recently awarded the ATA Scientific Instruments Scientific Encouragement Award.

My childhood ambition was…to become a veterinarian.

My research interest isbone mineralisation, because it is a very dynamic process where cells create the environment around them. This environment then goes on to influence the cells. Even though the hard mineral is what makes bones strong, little is known about how mineralisation in bone is initiated and we still have a lot to understand.

My happiest moment…was finding a new result about the genes I work on that we would have never expected.

I got into research…because of the biotechnology subjects during my Bachelor of Engineering degree. I became fascinated about how much is going on in my body without me even knowing.

The hardest thing I have ever done was… moving 16,000km away from Austria to the other side of the world (it was also the most exciting thing I have ever done!)

Budding scientists for National Science Week

This year SVI celebrated National Science Week in August with a succession of tours for science students from Siena College and Genazzano FCJ College.

Siena College’s Head of Science, Assimina Semertjis, said,“Our students considering a career in science found this a valuable experience, as they were able to see firsthand the enormous contribution that female scientists are making in varied areas of research. The tour included learning about research in proteins and the use of x-ray crystallography to gain an understanding at the atomic level, drug design and research into osteoporosis. Two PhD students also shared their academic pathways.”

Student Hayley Di Stefano said, “The visit provided me with some insight into the everyday activities of medical researchers and how complex and difficult it truly is, while allowing me to think about exploring this field in later years. Hearing young PhD students and knowledgeable researchers discuss the work that they’re undertaking helped me gain a better understanding of medical research.”

We wish Hayley and her fellow scholars well in their future studies and look forward to welcoming more budding scientists during National Science Week next year.

30 years of support

The SVI Support Group celebrated their 30th anniversary at their annual fundraising dinner in October. Over the last 14 years, the Group has focussed its activities on providing vital financial aid to SVI students in the form of Top-up Scholarships.

Acknowledging the special role the Support Group has played at the Institute, Tom Kay said, “The Group today has a remarkable number of members who have been involved for all of its 31 years. This is a tribute to their loyalty and enthusiasm and to the leadership abilities of the indomitable Claire O'Callaghan.”

Top-up Scholarship recipient, Dr Wilson Castillo, is one of the Scholars supported by the Top-up Scholarship Program. Wilson spoke at the dinner of the impact that supporters have made in his life.

Wilson went to a primary school in Ecuador where there were 80 children in a class and not enough chairs for all the students. One of his teachers noticed his promise early on and convinced his parents to make the difficult financial sacrifice to send him to a private school with a higher standard of teaching. This allowed him to eventually enter medical school, where as a student he helped to run a project that paid the medical costs of 127 low income patients with diabetic complications.

Wilson said this study was his impetus to embark upon a career in medical research, where he sees that the results can help people at a larger scale.

“Support shown by SVI donors, particularly through the work of the SVI Support Group, is crucial to our ability to focus fully on our studies. Thanks to all of the Scholarship supporters for investing in the future of medical research.”

The Mediterranean Diet

Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos, from Murdoch University, had the audience enthralled when she presented at SVI’s annual Food Matters event in September.

Professor Itsiopolous’ research has helped to bolster evidence that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. She has been building her body of research – for which she is internationally recognised – for 30 years.

Some of Professor Itsiopolous’ key recommendations are:

  • We should be consuming 60ml of extra virgin olive oil every day.
  • An ideal plant to animal food ratio is 4:1.
  • We should eat fish/seafood twice a week.
  • Limit processed food, red meat and dairy (unless it is fermented, such as feta cheese and yogurt).

Introducing Will Pye

Will Pye joined the SVI Foundation team in September, in a role created to give optimum support and acknowledgment to our existing major donors and to generate new supporters.

“I am excited to bring 20 years of experience in fundraising and entrepreneurship to help SVI continue to grow its capacity in research.

At its heart fundraising is simply helping donors help beneficiaries, whether that be a rising star researcher, a potentially game changing new research project or the many recipients of a new therapy in the future. In the process I get to help donors feel great about contributing to deeply meaningful projects.

I have enjoyed meeting many exceptional major donors and in the coming months will meet with many more of you. I look forward to learning about your journey with SVI and how we might match your philanthropic goals with areas of critical need and high impact.”

Contact Will at [email protected] or 0414 183 416.