Georgina Sylvia was trained as a chemist, but teaming up with biologists and physicists is all in a day’s work. At the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, Dr Sylvia uses light to understand minuscule biological changes that can have a big impact on human health. Continue reading
Professor Dennis Matthews is one of CNBP’s oldest friends, having been coming to Australia from his home in California each year for nearly seven years as a member of its International Science Committee.
“I’ve actually been coming here since before the CNBP inception. They were just getting their act together for the initial grant when I first visited,” he says.
Professor Matthews was trained as physicist, but for most of his working life he has been involved in the development of medical devices.
His multidisciplinary life is reflected in his position as professor at University of California Davis in both the Department of Neurological Surgery and the College of Engineering. He was at one time also director of UC Davis’ Center for Biophotonics, Science, and Technology.
“I was hired into the neurological department not because I knew anything about neurosurgery but because they wanted their physicians to have more opportunity to do early stage research, even before it could be translated to the clinic,” he says.
He “abandoned physics 30 or 40 years ago”, drawn to things that were more hands-on and, around that time, he met a medical doctor who wanted to develop better instrumentation.
“I told him I didn’t know anything about medicine so he should go away. But he didn’t.”
That started a long history of working with doctors and bioscientists to develop technology that helped in their work.
“Biological scientists are incredibly smart at what they do but they are not so smart at measuring it,” he says.
“I don’t know what their problems are, of course, so they tell me what they are trying to achieve and I tell them ways to get at the solutions to their problems – and we help each other along the way.
“What I like about it, and CNBP works very nicely in this respect, is that you ‘bootstrap’ it. I tell the bioscientists I can do something but I’m not quite sure I know how to do it. So they challenge me to make technology progress at the same time.”
He believes CNBP has some unique strengths – “I wouldn’t travel around 13,000km to come here otherwise”.
He was first introduced to the centre by the inaugural director, Professor Tanya Munro. “I thought she had an extremely good vision of where all this could go and perhaps an even better way of communicating that vision.” Since then, he says, current director Professor Mark Hutchinson has emerged as an incredible thought leader as well.
Professor Matthews says he likes the way the CNBP brings themes together and its “Mission Impossible” approach to throwing multidisciplinary teams of experts at problems.
As a technologist he was also drawn to the IPAS fibre optics group, and the way it was developing fibre sensors to interrogate places that might otherwise be invisible.
Two biological research themes particularly interested him.
“Many of the things here are important to me but there were two that were exceptional and that was Mark’s [Hutchinson] work on neuroscience applied to pain, and particularly his interest in developing a “painometer”.
He was also attracted to the IVF research under Chief Investigator Professor Jeremy Thompson.
“My daughter had two children by IVF and so my interests were already a bit piqued. But I was also interested to see if we could make the whole thing work better.”
Secondly was the possibility of making sure the highest quality embryos were developed and then implanted.
“That whole notion was extremely fascinating and provocative to me,” he says. “I think that we are going to learn how to make embryos healthier in normal conception. And if we can make the healthiest baby possible it can lead to a lifetime of good health.”
Personal experience also lay at the heart of his interest in Professor Hutchinson’s work on pain, which, while important to help people cope at a personal level, he sees as a potential solution to the opiate crisis.
“At the moment we are only delivering pain-masking drugs,” he says. “These powerful drugs don’t do anything except make people not care if they hurt – they still hurt.”
He is helping with the task of looking for biomarkers that might underpin such a measuring device.
“I think it’s possible, but I don’t know yet what the right measurements are,” Professor Matthews says. “And the problem with humans is there is no single recipe, so if we do get a panel of biomarkers that said my pain level was 6 it could be completely wrong for you.
“So we need some way to normalise it so we can say this is a baseline for an individual.”
Professor Matthews is particularly drawn to the CNBP’s focus on envisioning the ultimate translation of the technology.
“So instead of just filling the journals with more manuscripts it is also important in biosciences that you keep in mind that your work will, in the end, actually affect patients.
“The question we should always be asking is ‘how do we get doctors to have the latest technologies to work with?’.”
CNBP has officially welcomed UNSW, one of the world’s leaders at translational engineering research, as its newest node.
In addition to the official open by UNSW Engineering Dean Professor Mark Hoffman, CNPB Director Professor Mark Hutchinson took the opportunity to lay out the CNBP mission and its accomplishments at an industry showcase. Continue reading
In the 10 years since graduating with a degree in biotechnology from university in her home state of Odisha in India, Minakshi Das has covered a lot of ground – both physically and in her studies.
First she did her masters in Biomedical Engineering at Gachon University in South Korea followed by a year’s work as a research fellow at a biotech company. Continue reading
CNBP researcher Dr James Quach is working on a quantum battery which, if he can demonstrate it works as the theory suggests, could revolutionise how fast we can charge electronic devices. Continue reading
Dr Kylie Dunning is motivated by creating a world where fewer couples struggle with infertility, an often invisible and stigmatised health challenge facing more than 15% of Australian couples. With lived experience herself of the challenges of starting a family, Dr Dunning is paving the way for couples to experience better, and more effective fertility care, through the creation of exciting new technologies. Continue reading
Associate Professor Daniel Kolarich is the CNBP’s chief investigator in the field of glycomics – the study of the glycome, the term for the sugars in our bodies. Continue reading
The CNBP and its researchers are taking part in a wide range of activities for National Science Week.
This Thursday 8 August researcher Dr Wei Deng from UNSW Sydney will explain how nanotechnogy is changing how we treat cancer, as part of Inspiring Australia’s Talking Science series.
It will be held at the Max Webber Library, in Blacktown, Sydney. More details here.
On Sunday, 11 August, Adelaide University’s Lyndsey Collins-Praino will host Kids Navigate Neuroscience, an event at which children aged 4-10 can explore how the brain works in a fun and hands-on way by participating in a series of interactive neuroscience exhibits.
On Tuesday 13 August explore medical brain research by joining Dr Lindsay Parker, a researcher at Macquarie University, as she discusses how she is trying to create better medicines for Alzheimer’s, chronic pain and brain cancer, by only targeting the unhealthy cells in the brain.
This event is part of Inspiring Australia’s Talking Science series as part of National Science Week. Bookings available now. Contact details:
Castle Hill Library
The Hills Shire Library Service
Phone: 02 9761 4510
There is a fun evening next Friday, 16 August, at the Adelaide Medical School, University of Adelaide, where you can explore the neuroscience of sex, drugs and salsa dancing.
A series of interactive exhibits will address questions such as, what role does the brain play in sexual attraction? Can you salsa dance your way to a healthy brain? How does the brain perceive different flavours when drinking wine, and how can pairing wine with different foods alter this perception?
Also next Friday, 16 August, the whole family is invited to see some amazing short videos on a massive screen in a free National Science Week Event hosted by STEMSEL Foundation Braggs Lecture Theatre, University of Adelaide AI Light Science Spectacular.
You will find out how the eye works, how NASA finds planets in other solar systems and how detected the edge of the Universe.
You will also explore light, from nanoscale biophotonics with CNBP research fellow Dr Roman Kostecki to exploring the Universe with Dr Jerry Madakbas, a photonics physicist who builds night vision sensors for NASA.
You can book through Eventbrite.
Also on Friday night:
What role does the brain play in sexual attraction? Can you salsa dance your way to a healthy brain? How does the brain perceive different flavours when drinking wine, and how can pairing wine with different foods alter this perception?
These days, you can’t seem to walk through the aisle of a grocery store without being bombarded by newspaper and magazine headlines touting the latest and greatest breakthrough in neuroscience research. But how can you tell fact from fiction?
Join us for this Big Science Adelaide event, held at the Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences (AHMS) building at the University of Adelaide, where we’ll explore the answers to these questions and many more!
More details at https://www.scienceweek.net.au/neuroscience-at-night/
Finally, CNBP researchers will be taking part in Science in the Swamp, a fun, free family festival of science displays, shows and activities on Sunday 18 August in Centennial Park, Sydney.
Join scientists as they show what amazing superpowers you find in nature – super sight, super hearing, super strength and camouflage are only some of the capabilities on show.
Be sure to put on your cape and dress up as your favourite superhero for this great event. You can find out more details here.
Biophotonics is a technique with so many applications it’s hard to know where to start.
While you probably have never heard of most of them, the technology is transforming the way we study human health.
Improving pregnancy success rates
A lot of what we know about fertilisation and embryo development has come from in vitro experiments – those carried out in a test tube. How much better if we could observe these processes inside real, live female bodies.
Well new technologies, using nanoscale biophotonics, let us do precisely that.
High powered sensors, harnessing the power of light, can zoom in on the chemistry of pregnancy to deepen our understanding of all the ingredients needed to grow a healthy baby for nine months.
Safer brain surgery
The tiny imaging probe, encased within a brain biopsy needle, lets surgeons “see” at-risk blood vessels as they insert the needle. That helps stop potentially fatal bleeds.
The smart needle, being developed by CNBP researchers at the University of Adelaide, contains a tiny fibre-optic camera, the size of a human hair, shining infrared light to see the vessels before the needle can damage them.
The needle is connected to computer software that can alert the surgeon in real-time.
It has already gone through a pilot trial with 12 patients at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Western Australia and will soon be ready for formal clinical trials.
Early diagnosis of common health problems
Our cells often signal ill health long before symptoms appear. And as we all know, early diagnosis can often mean the difference between life and death.
That inspired CNBP researchers to look for a general marker for ill health and then to work on a means of detecting it.
They settled on the cytokines, a type of protein secreted by cells in the immune system that can signal a whole range of conditions including arthritis, tissue trauma, depression or even cancer.
The problem up to now has been that cytokines are extremely hard to measure and quantify – there is not many of them at any time, they are extremely small and exist in an environment of much background noise and interference.
So CNBP researchers developed nanotools to monitor cytokines in living humans. They engineered the surfaces of nanomaterials such as gold nanoparticles, graphene oxides and magnetic nanoparticles to sense the presence of cytokines, providing an ultra-powerful tool for early detection.
Removing more cancer cells the first time
One of the biggest problems for cancer surgeons is making sure they remove all the cancer cells while leaving as much healthy tissue intact as possible. But it can be hard to tell the two apart – in 15-20% of cases the patient requires follow-up surgery to remove tumour tissue that was missed the first time. It is particularly difficult to differentiate with breast cancer.
Now CNBP researchers, in collaboration with clinicians at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, have developed a sensor which can potentially help surgeons to tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue in real time, which could significantly increase the surgery success rate for many cancers.
The probe works by measuring the pH of the surface of the tissue, an indicator of whether the tissue is healthy or tumorous. The tip of an optical fibre is coated with a pH sensitive indicator, and the signal read out uses a low-cost light emitting diode and portable spectrometer.
Less painful, more accurate testing for prostate cancer
It has long been a goal to replace invasive needle biopsies to test for prostate cancer with a simple urine test. Not only would that be great for the patients, it would also be cheaper and faster. But current urine diagnostic tools are just not sensitive enough.
For a test to be useful for early diagnosis and treatment, it would need to detect just 10 cancer cells in a large volume of urine. Biophotonics could solve this problem.
CNBP is working with Minomic International and Macquarie University to develop a new method of fluorescent staining and imaging prostate cancer cells so they become highly visible, glowing when viewed under a special microscope.
The capacity to quantify single prostate cancer cells has the potential to revolutionise the diagnostics industry.
CNBP researcher Dr Nafisa Zohora has been awarded her PhD in applied physics by Melbourne’s RMIT University. Her research project looked at materials that could be used as an alternative to available fluorophores – the fluorescent chemical compounds used in a variety of biological research projects.
The discoveries of the project solves a significant problem that was stopping scientists obtaining good images of biological samples.
Fluorophores are used to stain specific cells, for example, which are then observed and analysed by a fluorescence microscope. They are used as biomarkers to identify a range of bioactive molecules such as antibodies or proteins.
But for the fluorophores to re-emit light, they must first absorb it in a process known as “excitation” – usually brought about with a laser.
The problem is, though, that some compounds just do not absorb enough with low power excitation to produce enough fluorescence to be seen under the microscope. But higher power, from greater exposure to a laser for example, can also generate so much heat that the sample is destroyed.
The fluorophores are also inclined to lose their ability to emit within a few seconds with repeated exposure to the laser, not giving enough time to take a good image.
Nafisa set out to find a solution to both these issues. She began by studying the commercially available nanoparticle fluorophores such as cuprous oxide (Cu2O), titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO) but couldn’t find the properties she was looking for.
She then decided to synthesise her own nanoparticles.
After two years of hard work, she had successfully developed a methodology to synthesis Cu2O nanocubes that become very bright with a very low power excitation.
What’s more they are photostable for several hours under repeated exposure to a laser – so both problems solved!
In a follow-up collaboration with the University of Adelaide, Nafisa tested the nanoparticles for their toxicity to cells, giving them a clean bill.
Her work uncovering the exceptional properties of the synthesised Cu2O nanoparticles opens up new possible applications in detecting antigens and other long-term bio-imaging applications.
Nafisa’s supervisors were Professor Brant Gibson (Physics, RMIT University), Dr Ahmad Kandjani (Chemistry, RMIT University) and Professor Mark Hutchinson (The University of Adelaide). She completed her PhD on 1 July 2019, and her graduation ceremony will be in December.