• Professor Vanessa Barrs

    Faculty of Veterinary Science

    • In 2006, infectious diseases researcher Vanessa Barrs noticed an unusual recurring infection among cats brought to her clinic at the University’s Valentine Charlton Cat Centre.

    • Three cats were all suffering from similar tumour-like growths in their eye sockets and nasal cavities that proved highly resistant to treatment with standard anti-fungal drugs.

    • She set out to investigate the cause of the infection, a decision that was to define the course of her research over the next decade. It led to the discovery of a previously unknown type of fungus that can infect cats, humans and dogs, and produced important breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of fungal infections.

    • It also led to a series of productive international collaborations with, among others, the Fungal Biodiversity Centre in Utrecht and with Professor Lynelle Johnson, an internationally renowned veterinary respiratory specialist at the University of California, Davis.

    • In 2013 Professor Barrs was able to establish that the infections seen at the cat clinic were caused by a previously unknown species of fungus, which she named Aspergillus felis. Aspergillus species help break down vegetation in soil and recycle carbon and nitrogen, but they also release spores that are spread by air currents.

    • Humans with a normal immune system can inhale hundreds of Aspergillus spores every day without ill effect. But a 56-year-old Portuguese man with pneumonia became the first known victim of A. felis infection, followed by a second patient with leukaemia.

    • The infection has also been seen with growing frequency in cats, particularly among Persian and Himalayan breeds. Professor Barrs estimates that the survival rate among infected cats is as low as 15 per cent.

    • Since making her discovery, Professor Barrs’ research team has carried out environmental sampling in Australia to look at the prevalence of Aspergillus fungi, discovering seven new species in the process.

    • She has been working with Professor Tania Sorrell from the Marie Bashir Institute, Professor Sharon Chen from Sydney Medical School and Associate Professor Dee Carter from the School of Molecular Bioscience on a one-health collaboration looking at drug resistance in fungal species.

    • Professor Barrs says: “In the Netherlands one in five samples of Aspergillus fumigatus, one of the most common causes of fungal respiratory disease in dogs, are resistant, and if people are infected with these resistant strains they are almost impossible to cure.

    • “This resistance has been linked to the use of fungicides in agriculture and I am currently investigating whether this is also happening in Australia.”

    • Meanwhile she has also been testing the use of the drug caspofungin on cats, in collaboration with Dr Ross Norris from St Vincent's Hospital and Professor Andrew McLachlan from the Faculty of Pharmacy. Caspofungin belongs to a class of drugs normally used to treat serious fungal infections in humans.

    • Early results from the tests have been promising, she says. “We have shown that the drug is safe in cats and reaches high concentrations in blood.

    • “I treated two cats with aspergillosis with this drug after they failed other therapies, and both were cured.”

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  • Professor Richard Lindley

    Geriatric Medicine, Sydney Medical School

    • Richard Lindley, Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Sydney Medical School, is leading a global public health study that aims to improve the treatment given to stroke patients.

    • Ischaemic stroke – in which a blood clot blocks an artery to the brain – affects 15 million people worldwide and causes 9 per cent of all deaths each year. The only approved medical treatment is an injection of tissue plasminogen activator, or alteplase, which works by dissolving the clot. But uptake remains poor because of the associated risk of bleeding in the brain.

    • However research in Japan has indicated that “clot busting” drugs given to patients with ischaemic stroke may be effective at lower doses than are currently administered.

    • Professor Lindley’s ENCHANTED study, which received $2.4 million in NHMRC funding last year via the George Institute, will run an international clinical trial to test whether clot busting can be made safer using a lower dose. It will also go on to test the effectiveness of immediate blood pressure lowering for those treated with clot busters.

    • The clinical trials involve more than 3000 people in Australia, China, Europe, SE Asia and South America.

    • The first stage of the trial was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June with promising results – the lower dose was associated with a marked reduction in the rate of subsequent brain haemorrhage.

    • Professor Lindley said: “A safer and more effective regime could have a major public health impact. It could revolutionise the way we treat stroke and make treatment available to many more patients around the world.”

    • Professor Lindley is an internationally known geriatrician and stroke physician whose career has focused on improved treatments for elderly patients, particularly those with stroke. His work has contributed to national stroke guidelines in Australia and Scotland and the establishment of new national standards for stroke care in Australia.

    • One of his collaborators in the study is Professor Joanna Wardlaw, a world expert on brain imaging for stroke from the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

    • “Joanna and I were both research fellows at Edinburgh in 1990,” said Professor Lindley.

    • “We have continued to work together and were part of an international collaboration that helped redefine neuroimaging terms. With Joanna’s involvement in the ENCHANTED study, we are getting the best possible advice for our brain imaging analyses and data collection and subsequent publication.”
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  • Food safety research with UC Davis

    • Researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of California, Davis, are collaborating on a project to reduce the risk of food poisoning outbreaks associated with raw produce.

    • Foods like salad crops and fruit are a surprisingly common cause of illness. Earlier this year 80 cases of food poisoning were linked to rockmelons grown in the Northern Territories. Another 43 people ended up in hospital after eating Australian-grown mung bean sprouts, and 140 people became sick after eating packaged salad greens. All three cases involved Salmonella poisoning.

    • In many cases, says Robyn McConchie, Professor of Horticulture and Pro-Dean in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, the contamination is caused by organic soil amendments – particularly chicken manure, which comes laden with Salmonella unless it is thoroughly composted.

    • “Salmonella is the second leading cause of food-borne illness in Australia,” says Professor McConchie, “If vegetable farmers store chicken manure next to their fields, the Salmonella can easily blow onto their crops or contaminate them via irrigation water.”

    • Working with Dr Trevor Suslow, an extension research specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis and a leading figure in food safety in the US, Professor McConchie and her team have been researching the remediation of soil contaminated by chicken manure and Salmonella. Funding has been provided by Australia’s Horticulture Innovation Ltd and the Center for Produce Safety in the US.

    • Their work has already produced valuable findings for farmers: that Salmonella dies off much more quickly in sandy soil than in clay loam; that high temperatures above 37⁰C cause a die-off of Salmonella in only 28 days; that solarisation using plastic covers is effective in eliminating Salmonella, but cover crops have little effect; and that the presence of manure in the soil promotes the survival of Salmonella.

    • “We are looking to make science-based recommendations for growers so they can make a quick return to safe crop production,” says Professor McConchie. “UC Davis has been a terrific partner in our research. This is an area for which they are internationally renowned.”

    • Dr Suslow is also one of the partner investigators in a food safety project being run by the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment with the help of a $2.2 million Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Training Centre grant.

    • The research will take place over four years and will focus on nine areas identified as priorities by the fresh produce industry. It will provide opportunities for 13 PhD and three postdoctoral students, and will involve collaboration with the University-based Fresh Produce Safety Centre.

    • https://freshproducesafety-anz.com/

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  • Looking into lunch boxes with University of Edinburgh

    • Research partners Teresa Davis and David Marshall are contributing to an international project that tracks the changing representation of family life in popular culture over recent decades.

    • Associate Professor Davis from Sydney Business School and Professor Marshall from the University of Edinburgh Business School are both involved in the Discursive Families Network, a group that examines how social values and popular beliefs about family life have been shaped over time. The network is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and also includes academics from Monash, Oxford and Lancaster.

    • Part of their research is looking at how family life and meals are represented in food advertising in the Australian Women’s Weekly and Good Housekeeping magazines since 1950.

    • They have also written about the representation of fathers in advertising, saying that there are still strong undertones of the father-as-breadwinner in advertising representations. Professor Marshall adds: “There are lots of ways to be a dad and if advertising could capture some of that diversity I think it would be a positive thing.”

    • Professor Davis and Professor Marshall have worked together for more than ten years and share common interests in advertising, consumer behaviour and marketing, particularly as it relates to the food industry and children.

    • “The best thing about strong international collaborations is that you bounce ideas off each other, and one paper can lead to a grant proposal so there’s a multiplicative effect,” says Professor Davis.

    • Their next joint project proposal led by the University of London (Royal Holloway), will look at parents' attitudes towards school lunch boxes around the world, and the debate over what should and shouldn’t be included in them. The research will involve interviews with parents and children in England, Scotland, India and Australia about the negotiations that take place in their homes.

    • “There’s a big debate going on in the UK about the merits of packed lunches, with a push towards a policy that would make it mandatory for children to eat school meals,” says Professor Davis. “Our study will look at what the effect of this increasingly prescriptive environment on families, particularly on mothers."

    • "It’s a very contentious issue, with conflict between children and parents and between parents and schools.” The issue has erupted in several parts of the world, including Australia, and in Canada a parent was fined $10 for not including grains in her child’s lunch box.

    • Professor Davis recently finished another research project looking at the digital marketing of food – particularly junk food – to children.

    • Food manufacturers are adept at using social media, she explains, using free, branded games that can be downloaded from iTunes.

    • “Branded games are silly but curiously addictive and they’re aimed at young children,” she says. “Parents don’t realise what’s going on.Sometimes in the course of one minute of play you can have 200 exposures to the brand. It creates a wallpaper marketing effect on the child consumers.

    • “The issue is what we can do in the policy space. I don’t see why it can’t be controlled in the same way as music downloads, but there seems to be a lack of political will to regulate advertising and product placement in the digital space in the same way. There is no doubt the food companies are way ahead of the regulators in using digital marketing.

    • “We can only hope that as consciousness grows, companies will be called to account or will have to change their ways. It would be great if food companies can think more carefully about these ethical issues and the role they play, and it is ultimately in their own interests because their long-term sustainability is increased if they have a good product.”

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  • Tectonic breakthrough with UC San Diego

    • A research team from the University of Sydney and the University of San Diego may have settled a long-running dispute over the date of the tectonic upheaval that led to the formation of the Asian continent.

    • The modern map of Asia began to take shape when the tectonic plate of India, moving at 15 centimetres per year, rammed into the Eurasian land mass millions of years ago.
    • The collision unleashed shockwaves that led to the formation of the Himalayas and sent ripples along the seafloor to the south.

    • Newly published research by Professor Dietmar Mueller and Dr Kara Matthews from the School of Geosciences, with Professor David Sandwell from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, provides the strongest evidence to date about when the collision occurred, suggesting that it took place about 47 million years ago.

    • Their research makes use of detailed maps of the ocean floor compiled from satellite data about the Earth’s gravity field.

    • The key to the breakthrough was the discovery in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, of an oceanic microplate – a small piece of ocean crust the size of Tasmania – which was almost certainly dislodged by the shockwaves following the collision.The date when that occurred can be worked out from geomagnetic data. “The ocean floor acts like a tape recorder as it records the successive reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field during seafloor spreading,” said Professor Mueller.

    • He added: “The timing of the India-Eurasia collision has been a major and long-standing controversy in plate tectonics and our research has produced the most precise date for the collision so far available.”

    • The University of Sydney and the Scripps Institution are both members of the EarthByte Group, an international partnership of universities, research centres and industry groups, which has developed the GPlates open-source plate reconstruction software.Professer Mueller, Professor Sandwell and Dr Matthews – who is now at the University of Oxford – are also collaborating on a book chapter looking at the origins of seafloor tectonic fabric and new microplate discoveries in the Pacific Ocean.
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  • Motion perception with Utrecht

    • Imagine being a surgeon and being able to walk through a 3D representation of the body before you perform a complex operation.

    • Imagine being a trainee police officer and being able to experience a virtual reality bank robbery where the robbers and their weapons are alarmingly lifelike, but not lethal.

    • Both scenarios are among the potential spin-offs from some intriguing research being carried out by scientists at the University’s School of Psychology in collaboration with Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

    • The two universities are leaders in the field of perception in dynamic environments – the study of what people do in a situation where both the environment and their own position are moving.

    • “How do we detect and calculate motion when we are moving ourselves?” asks Professor Frans Verstraten, the McCaughey Chair in Psychology at Sydney and a former grad-student and professor at Utrecht University.

    • “We can do it our brains are very good at compensating for our own movement in the world, at discounting the distortions in the projection of the world on the retina caused by our own movements.”

    • The research makes use of advanced facilities at the School of Psychology that enable people to be studied in a controlled environment, such as a highly immersive virtual reality laboratory or a pod looking like a space capsule – built with the help of NASA – that allows both the seated observer and what he sees to be moved.

    • “Essentially we are looking at how the brain works and how people behave under different conditions, which opens up multiple areas of research interest,” says Professor Verstraten.

    • The Virtual Reality environment, for example, opens up opportunities for new kinds of research with moving observers, including clinically relevant questions and solutions. Researchers in the School of Psychology are collaborating with colleagues in the Brain and Mind Centre on neuroscience and childhood development, and with the Gambling Treatment Clinic on treatments for problem gambling.

    • There is also commercial and outside interest in other work, such as the effectiveness of advertising or signage – do people really understand the pictograms they see at a foreign airport? – to potential treatments for phobias. One of the questions is whether experiences in the virtual world also apply to the real world. So if you place an arachnophobe in a room full of virtual spiders, will they experience any benefits in the real world?

    • It’s a far cry from the popular image of what psychologists do, admits Professor Verstraten. “Lots of people still think a psychology lab consists of a collection of leather couches,” he says. “A visit to the high tech labs in Sydney and Utrecht should quickly change their minds.”
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  • Wheat production innovation with India

    • For hundreds of millions of people in India, wheat is an essential part of their daily diet and their major source of calories.

    • India relies on its wheat crop to feed its huge rural and urban poor population; increased wheat production is a key food production goal on the sub-continent.

    • But since the Green Revolution the yield increase from wheat crops has slowed and new approaches are urgently needed to regain traction and boost wheat production.

    • The University of Sydney is one of the partners in a project that uses an innovative hybrid wheat system that is superior to anything developed before and that does not involve environmentally harmful chemicals or genetic engineering.

    • Professor Richard Trethowan, Director of the University’s IA Watson Grains Research Centre, said: “On-farm yields of maize, soybean and lately rice have all benefited from the introduction of hybrids. When two inbred lines are crossed, a more vigorous strain is produced.

    • “But due to problems with seed production, wheat hybrids have never been commercially viable despite yield gains of 10-15 per cent and increased yield stability, which is vital in a warming and more variable climate.”

    • The project involves partners from India (the Indian Agricultural Research Institute), Pakistan (the University of Agriculture Faisalabad) and the UK agriculture group KWS. It builds on an ingenious male sterility system, the key element in hybrid seed production, which has been developed over the past 30 years.

    • Professor Trethowan added: “Essential to the success of project is the Indian breeders’ invaluable local knowledge of wheat, the environment and markets.

    • “Currently, almost all Indian wheat varieties originate from public breeding programs, so the only way to make an impact is through these organisations.”

    • Australian researchers at the University of Sydney and GCI are world experts in their fields of science and KWS provides state of the art molecular laboratory facilities. The project is funded through Innovate UK.

    • Sydney researchers are working with Indian partners on several other projects to improve wheat production in India involving a variety of ideas: the use of molecular marker technologies to develop new strains; optimisation of the crop canopy to assist grain growth; and the development of new strains carrying genes from related species of grain.

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  • Professor Duanfang Lu

    Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning

    • While the world’s attention has been focused on the monumental changes taking place in China’s cities, Professor Duanfang Lu has been documenting an equally radical shift in the Chinese countryside.

    • Over the past ten years, millions of Chinese peasants – village dwellers owning a small strip of land – have been moved out of their homes by the government into a string of “new villages”.

    • In many places people have moved from traditional villages with no electricity or running water into purpose built apartments in residential districts complete with roads, Internet coverage and other trappings of modern life.

    • Dr Lu, Professor of Architecture and Urbanism in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, has been researching the design of the new villages and people’s reaction to them as part of an ARC Future Fellowship. The project takes a broad look at the economic, social and political aspects of Chinese urbanisation.

    • Interviewing people in Shandong and Hebei, she found that many people were unhappy about the loss of their traditional way of life – raising chickens and pigs in the courtyard, chatting casually to their neighbours under a tree, and sharing ritual spaces for cultural events like Chinese New Year.

    • Others complained that their living expenses had increased, and that they had to pay for air conditioning and tap water instead of water from their own well.

    • But others had enjoyed becoming modern citizens and having access to mobile phones, social networks and online commerce, just like urban residents.

    • “Everything has good and bad aspects,” said Professor Lu. “And things in China are changing at such a rapid pace that whatever you study might immediately become outdated.”

    • A Tsinghua graduate, Professor Lu gained a PhD from the University of California Berkeley, and has worked at Sydney since 2004. She has also been a visiting scholar at Harvard.

    • In 2015 she organised a conference at Sydney on China’s megaregions which she is hoping to develop into an ARC Linkage project with academics from Tsinghua, Tongji University and the University of Hong Kong.

    • “China’s economic growth has relied on the success of these regions, on cooperation between cities,” she said.
    • “My aim is to carry out a comprehensive review examining why some regions – like the Pearl River Delta, the Yangtze River Delta and the Jing-Jin-Ji Region – have been successful.
    • “We can then make comparisons with other less successful areas like the Northeast region bordering Russia and North Korea, and Guangxi Province in the south. We need to understand why some regions are lagging behind.”
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