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Rewarding research across the board

Volume 7 Number 9 September 12 - October 9 2011

From drug delivery to invasive plants, the University of Melbourne is home to the next generation of research leaders, thanks to a new State Government scholarship scheme. By David Scott.

Albert Einstein believed that if you knew what you were doing, it wouldn’t be called research. Astronaut Neil Armstrong agreed, once remarking that research was all about creating new knowledge.

And for three young PhD researchers at the University of Melbourne, their time in the labs has proved to be just as Einstein and Armstrong had intended.

“Research work is overwhelming, the moment you get bored you should stop working and have a walk to make up your mind,” says Francesca Cavalieri, an Italian PhD exploring new drug delivery methods and applications in the School of Chemistry.

“You should always work on the novelty and innovation of your research work, pushing to get new ideas. The hardest thing is doing an original work and performing experiments for it using reliable methods. I love to try to use visionary approaches in my research; curiosity plays an essential role in my daily research work, and I never get bored.”

Ms Cavalieri was one of three recipients – along with Amanda Lee Jue Er and Sara Ohadi – of the first ever Victorian International Research Scholarships awarded earlier this year. Part of the State Government’s “Victoria – Leader in Learning Initiative”, the Scholarships provide three years’ worth of funding to international students conducting specialised doctorate-level research in Victorian universities.

“At the University of Melbourne, I have found a supportive, enthusiastic and interdisciplinary environment that allows me to learn quickly by crossing traditional teaching boundaries,” says Ms Cavalieri.

“It’s been great to be able to study under Professor Ashokkumar Muthupandian, the leader of the internationally recognised sonochemistry research group, as he’s been very supportive and encouraging during my learning.”

Ms Cavalieri’s research looks closely at the emerging area of nanomedicine, and the use of micro-nanoballoons for the targeting and delivery of medicine, otherwise known as the so-called “smart pill.” Such balloons enable not just better targeting, but when injected into the bloodstream can be easily tracked using ultrasound imaging and then burst or released into a variety of tissues by non-invasive means.

“We are developing a balloon made of protein that could enable drugs to be delivered in a much more targeted way,” says Ms Cavalieri

“Targeted drug delivery using a micro-nanoballon can dramatically reduce side effects of cancer therapy and improve its efficacy.  So far we have been working on tailoring the structural and functional properties of micro-nanoballons. We just started in vitro and in vivo studies to investigate the therapeutic properties of our system.

“Novel methods of drug delivery will not only result in more effective and efficacious treatments but will also generate new niche markets and great intellectual properties.”

Amanda Lee Jue Er’s arrival in Melbourne from Singapore also coincided with an interest in healthcare, albeit with a much more personal inspiration.

“After my uncle developed cancer, I knew I wanted to do research to contribute to the fight for cancer,” Ms Lee says.

“It made me more motivated and passionate about undertaking postgraduate studies to develop a career in cancer research.”

For Ms Lee, the chance to work as part of a new team at the University of Melbourne with a young investigator coming from one of Australia’s leading cancer research institutes, The Peter McCallum Cancer Centre, was almost too good to be true.

“During my final undergraduate semester, I did a research project module under the superb supervision of Dr Leonie Quinn. My academic and research choices were greatly influenced by Dr Quinn and she has inspired me along a path focused on understanding the biology of cancer.”

While the focus of her PhD is on the biology of cancer, for Ms Lee it is the humble “vinegar fly” and not a petri dish of samples that takes centre stage in the lab.

“Our research involves developing animal models to understand the initiation and progression of cancer. The current understanding of the genetics of human cancer has been greatly aided by studies using flies as an animal model.”

The research looks closely at the two types of proteins that are required for the tight regulation of cell growth and cell division – oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Tight control of cell cycle is essential to ensure that cells do not overproliferate, which is one of the key steps in cancer initiation.

“Our lab determines how growth and cell division are regulated in response to the cellular environment by the complex array of developmental signals in the whole animal using Drosophila melanogaster, (the vinegar fly), which has been studied for over 100 years. Importantly for our studies the main elements of the cell cycle machinery have been conserved through evolution from Drosophila to humans, so knowledge derived from our Drosophila studies can be used to understand the complex pathways linked to cancer progression in humans.”

Both researchers say that the Scholarships have been a huge motivator since joining the University.

“When I was notified of the award, I couldn’t believe it at all!” says Ms Lee.

“I was over the moon when I received the VIRS as it meant I had secured funding to pursue my dream of undertaking a PhD with Dr Quinn at Melbourne University.

“More than that, however, the award has motivated me to take my research to the international level. Gaining a scholarship will allow me to attend a number of international conferences on my topic, and to spend time in a US-based research lab, to help gain an understanding of what new technologies have developed in this field and share these with the labs.”

Ms Cavalieri too has high hopes that the Scholarship will lead to significant outcomes.

“I am honoured and very grateful to both the Victorian State government and the University of Melbourne for this award which allows me to carry out my research work.

“Bringing the nanodevices for assessment in clinical trials requires many years, but I sincerely hope we will have a chance in the future to test our micro-nanoballons for real-world applications in the realm of medicine.”