Brisbane drives a biomedical lead

Andrew Ryan

Brisbane is winning a reputation as one of the world’s premier hubs for biomedical research, with scientists at QUT, QIMR Berghofer and Griffith University’s Menzies Health Institute all working on breakthrough developments aimed at improving the quality of life for everyone.

Associate Professor Mia Woodruff is one of those whose work will have a dramatic impact. Working at QUT’s Biofabrication and Tissue Morphology Group, Prof Woodruff is developing technology to allow the 3D-printing of tissue and cartilage cells.

The short term goal is to develop a technology that will permit the biofabrication of prosthetic ears for children born with the debilitating condition of microtia.

Microtia is a congenital defect where infants are born with either no ear or an undeveloped ear. Prof Woodruff hopes to develop the 3D printing technology to the point where prosthetic ears will be available to children and others with microtia for less than the cost of a pair of eyeglasses.

Over time, she hopes to develop the technology to the point where specialised 3D printers can print biocompatible materials to augment other parts of the body and its organs. This could be especially useful for soldiers who are injured in the line of duty on the battlefield.

Professor Woodruff was born in Yorkshire, UK, and arrived in Brisbane in 2006 after completing her PhD at the University of Nottingham followed by postdoctoral research at the National University of Singapore.

She is an internationally recognised expert in bone tissue engineering and biofabrication, and her many accolades include winning the Queensland Young Tall Poppy Science Award in 2013.

“I’m fortunate to be working with an incredibly talented multidisciplinary team. Together with Metro North Hospital and Health service, QUT recognised the importance of co-locating medical technology research on a hospital campus, with access to patients and clinicians to really drive new technology development and have an impact on patient quality of life. To lead this initiative is a dream come true,” Prof Woodruff said.

Another scientist doing cutting edge research, this time in the area of cancer and genomics, is Nic Waddell, at QIMR Berhofer.

Ms Waddell and her team are working with computer scientists to analyse data from a technique called next generation sequencing (NGS). They use a complex system of computer hardware and custom-created software to analyse NGS data looking for mutations in the genomes of cancer cells, and are focused on a range of cancers including pancreatic cancer and melanoma.

“We are identifying the underlying genetic landscape of tumours and we now know what is driving some tumours,” she said.

“Next we can use that information to look at why some people are potentially predisposed to tumours and also we can start to understand how we might treat tumours much better in the future.”

“Cancer is a disease of the genome, so what happens is that a normal cell will acquire errors or mutations in the DNA of that cell and over time if those mutations hit a key part of the genome the normal cell can start growing uncontrollably or behaving incorrectly and it might lead to cancer.

Recently, QIMR Berghofer launched genomiQa, a company that is the first of its kind in Australia. It offers hospitals, clinicians and companies whole genome analysis of cancer to help tailor treatments for individual cancer diagnoses.

“Current tests being offered now might focus on just one mutation, one gene or a selection of genes, but genomiQa will focus on whole genome sequencing and we are the first Australian company to concentrate on whole genome analysis as a service,” Dr Waddell said.

Along with biofabrication and cancer genomics, Brisbane is also a world-leading centre for social robotics.

Working out of one of the best social robotics laboratories in the world at Brisbane’s Griffith University Professor Wendy Moyle said her world-leading research into robotics was focused on making life easier for people with dementia.

“Most of my work is involved in improving the quality of life for people with dementia and also their family carers,” she said.

Prof Moyle and her team which includes neuropsychologists, pharmacists, psychiatrists, IT specialists and engineers, are weeks away from publishing the results of the world’s most sophisticated clinical trial into the use of robots, specifically, the use of PARO, a robot that looks and acts like a baby harp seal and is used in place of a live animal.

The PARO robot is being trialled with 415 people with dementia across 28 nursing homes in South East Queensland. Developed in Japan, PARO is soft, cuddly and can interact and communicate with people by encouraging them to show it love and affection.

Professor Moyle’s research found that PARO was able to give people with dementia greater levels of comfort, pleasure, stimulation and joy than either a non-robotic fluffy toy or usual patient care.

PARO was also found to ease a number of the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia.

Taken together, these leading researchers demonstrate that Brisbane, and Queensland as a whole is taking a place as a location for cutting edge biomedical and robotics research.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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