University of Melbourne's $100 million Bio21 Molecular
Science and Biotechnology Institute opened recently
with announcements of discoveries in fighting deadly
diseases and pest insects. Director of the Institute,
Professor Dick Wettenhall, sees its combination of
research, business, sophisticated laboratories and
equipment transforming the way the University turns
inventions into real-world solutions. “The Institute is already
home to 240 of our best biochemistry, genetics and
chemistry researchers, as well as three companies.
It will grow in the next two years to host up to
450 researchers – including more than 150 students – and
15 companies,” he says. Support for the Bio21 Institute
has included, from the Victorian Government, $15m
towards the building, $6.7m towards specialist equipment
and nanotechnology clean room, and land to the value
of $15m. The Commonwealth Department of Health has
contributed $9.5m and the University of Melbourne
and Atlantic Philanthropies have contributed $50m
and $30m, respectively. This feature highlights some
of the Bio21 Institute's world-leading research staff,
projects and facilities.
The University of Melbourne's Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute
is purpose-built to house researchers from across disciplines but with a common
aim to excel in areas of science and technology, ranging from medicine and dentistry
to nanotechnology and engineering.
The Institute is home to researchers from across several University faculties – Science,
Land and Food Resources, Engineering, Veterinary Science and Medicine, Dentistry
and Health Sciences – and from major Melbourne research institutes.
The design of the new seven-storey building – including specially designed ‘break-out'
areas on each floor – encourages a community of engagement and collaboration.
fostering interaction between research groups working in diverse fields, to encourage
new ideas to take shape and to strengthen ongoing projects.
More than $25 million (cash and in kind) has been invested in major platform
technologies to ensure that researchers at the Bio21 Institute have the best
equipment available to them to take their ideas and research initiatives to the
The Institute will also strengthen Australian research by providing external
access to this state-of-the-art technology for both academic and industry scientists,
and the experts who can maximise their value. To accommodate this, the Institute
houses an extensive complex of visitors' laboratories in order to facilitate
access to technology and encourage collaboration.
“Today's platform technologies allow us to answer questions that we previously
couldn't even ask. They are as much about people and expertise as equipment,” says
Institute Director, Professor Dick Wettenhall.
Major technologies at the Bio21 Institute include a $5.7m Nuclear Magnetic Resonance
(NMR) facility, a $7m Nanobiotechnology Electron Microscope facility, 12 mass
spectrometers throughout the building, a high-resolution laser scanning microscope
and a biomolecular interaction analysis facility.
A key feature of the Institute is its strong focus on translating research into
educational and economic community benefits by encouraging and engaging with
industry so that discoveries and inventions can be turned into real world solutions.
“The Institute is dedicated to a dynamic interaction with industry that advances
Australia's biotechnology community and turns ideas into outcomes,” says Professor
The Institute provides business incubator accommodation for promising start-up
companies to give them every chance to grow. This includes access to flexible
and affordable laboratory and office space, advice on commercialisation and access
to the expertise, technology and networks of the Institute.
Engagement with industry also includes company access to the Institute's visitors
laboratories space and equipment with a view to enhancing collaboration and sharing
of ideas, products and new technologies.
“The combination of research, business, sophisticated laboratories and equipment
at the Bio21 Institute will transform the way the University turns ideas and
inventions into real world solutions,” Professor Wettenhall says.
Smart surfaces could turn light into power
Solar panels you can paint on the wall are a dreamed of achievement for one of
the new Bio21 Institute's star recruits, organic chemist Professor Andrew Holmes.
“Andrew Holmes and his team have already invented and commercialised a new kind
of low cost computer display whilst in Cambridge. Now they plan to apply the
same ideas to create low cost plastic solar panels,” says Director of the Bio21
Institute, Professor Dick Wettenhall.
Professor Holmes returned to Melbourne from the UK in October 2004, attracted
by a package of Federal and State funding including a Federation Fellowship,
a VESKI Fellowship, and a custom-designed laboratory at the Bio21 Institute.
“But what attracted me most,” he said, “was the opportunity to combine my chemistry
knowledge and skills to biological issues, and the opportunity to work on new
technology for solar cells – desperately needed if Australia is going to meet
its long term needs for sustainable power generation.”
In the early 1980s Professor Holmes's team at Cambridge University was working
on ways to make the active ingredients of the venom of the South American poison
Serendipitously they made a strange new plastic which glowed green if an electrical
current passed through it. The end result was a new kind of computer screen and
a ‘spin-off' enterprise – the NASDAQ-listed Cambridge Display Technology company.
Now in Melbourne, Professor Holmes is taking the next step – turning light
emitting plastics into light absorbing plastics.
“I believe these plastics could be used to create low cost solar panels. They
won't be as efficient as silicon-based panels – an area where Australia also
leads – but their low cost will allow them to be used where silicon panels are
Professor Holmes is working with a coalition of organisations including CSIRO
Molecular Science and the CRC for Polymers.
He regards himself as a molecule maker. “But we make molecules only if we can
do something with them. Do they allow us to probe a biological system or develop
a smart material with industrial applications? The challenge is to build bridges
between chemistry and biology.”
Professor Holmes is already talking to Bio21 researchers leaders such
as Associate Professor Philip Batterham (Genetics), who is investigating the
genetic basis of resistance and behaviour in insects, and Associate Professor
Malcolm McConville, who is studying the molecular activation of diseases such
as leishmaniasis and tuberculosis.
Deadly parasites found to have Achilles heel
Many parasites are hard to fight because their cells are so similar to ours that
the drugs we use kill our cells too.
Bio21 Institute researchers at the University of Melbourne have discovered a
potential Achilles' heel which could allow us to take on the parasites that cause
millions of human deaths worldwide from leishmaniasis and tuberculosis, without
the cost to our own cells.
While leishmaniasis is largely unknown in the West, it infects at least 12 million
people worldwide and is re-emerging in the West.
Americans troops returning from Iraq have been told not to give blood for a year
to prevent the possible spread of the parasite into the US blood supply. Last
year, the parasite was found in kangaroos in northern Australia.
Spread by mosquito-like sandflies, the leishmania parasite infects certain white
blood cells known as macrophages. Its biochemistry is so close to ours that the
drugs used to fight it also damage our own cells.
No more. A research team, led by Bio21 biochemist Associate Professor Malcolm
McConville, has discovered the parasite doesn't use glucose for energy storage,
as we do. It uses a different sugar, mannose, instead.
“This is an exciting discovery that opens the way to new drugs to fight parasitic
diseases,” says Director of the Bio21 Institute, Professor Dick Wettenhall.
“Biochemists and chemists at the Bio21 Institute are now working to identify
drug targets. This is just the kind of collaborative work using the latest equipment
that the Bio21 Institute was set up to do.”
“We expect the combination of research, business, sophisticated laboratories
and equipment at the Bio21 Institute to transform the way the University turns
inventions into real world solutions,” he says.
Associate Professor McConville says the discovery not only offers hope for
leishmaniasis but may also help in developing drugs for many other microbial
pathogens which use mannose – including those involved in malaria and tuberculosis.”
He says a major problem in coping with tuberculosis is the cell wall itself. “It
stands alone from other bacteria – a waxy, impervious barrier resistant to almost
all commonly used antibiotics.
“We've found that without mannose the bacterium cannot form new walls and divide,
and it eventually dies.” His team is working on the development of potential
drugs that will target this weakness.