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University of Melbourne launches biotech flagship

Critical research mass builds at new Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute


Federation Fellow Professor Andrew Holmes with Bio21 Institute Chemistry colleagues Ms Melanie Tsang and Dr Scott Watkins (right)

[ Photo: Michael Silver ]

The 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 next level.

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 Wettenhall.

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 arrow frog.

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 too expensive.”

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.

 

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This story has been adapted from a news release -
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