Winners in the Australian Innovation Challenge

8 December 2011

Two University of Sydney scientists have won Australian Innovation Challenge awards for their research - Professor Marcela Bilek, from the School of Physics, and her team won the Health award, while Professor Rick Shine from the School of Biological Sciences took out the Environment award.

Professor Shine and Professor Bilek received their $5000 prizes at an awards ceremony in Brisbane last night.

Attracting more than 300 entries from across Australia in 2011, the awards inaugural year, winners were chosen in seven professional categories and one backyard innovation category.

Professor Marcela Bilek and her team won the health award.
Professor Marcela Bilek and her team won the health award.

Professor Marcela Bilek, with colleagues Professor David McKenzie, also from the School of Physics, Professor Tony Weiss from the School of Molecular Bioscience, and Professor Cristobal dos Remedios from the School of Medical Sciences in Sydney Medical School, won the Health award for their new technique to attach biologically functional molecules to surfaces, which has a huge range of applications.

"We're really pleased to have won the Health category of the Australian Innovation Challenge, as it recognises the widespread applicability of our new technique of attaching biomolecules to surfaces," said Professor Bilek.

"There is a vast range of sensing and diagnostic devices that use biomolecules, like proteins, attached to surfaces. Our new technology will enhance the performance of these devices, as it provides a more effective way of attaching biomolecules to surfaces," explained Professor Bilek.

"The technology will also enable implantable biomedical devices that are not only biocompatible, but can stimulate optimal tissue responses in the person who has the implant. This will help reduce the problem of implants - like hip and knee replacements or stents in the heart - being rejected by the body."

Their innovation will also impact on industries such as chemical, food and biofuel manufacturing, as it will allow continuous flow enzymatic processing.

"Our new platform technology uses strong covalent bonds, without the need for chemical linkers and wet chemistry. The method is simple, safe and environmentally friendly," said Professor Bilek.

"We use a dry plasma treatment to prepare the surface, then expose the surface to a solution with the biomolecules we want to attach in it. Our surface preparation process can be applied to the surface of any material of any shape, which makes it easy to use on all sorts of surfaces."

Professor Rick Shine won the environmental award.
Professor Rick Shine won the environmental award.

Professor Rick Shine won the Environment award for his research into innovative ways of reducing cane toad (Bufo marinus) populations by using pheromones from the toads themselves on cane toad eggs and tadpoles.

"Invasive cane toads are an environmental catastrophe for native Australian species. The toads already occupy one-third of the Australian continent, and are spreading faster and faster. It's clear we need effective ways to control the cane toads," said Professor Shine.

"My research group - Team Bufo - has shown that cane toad tadpoles communicate with each other using specific chemicals to warn their relatives of danger, and to locate and destroy competitors from newly-laid clutches of their own species. It also turns out that native Australian frogs don't use these pheromones to communicate."

"Our innovation is to exploit these pheromone signals to control cane toad numbers. For example, we've found that continued exposure to the toad 'alarm pheromone' kills toad tadpoles, by stressing them; short-term exposure of toad eggs to the 'suppression pheromone' kills tadpoles that hatch from those eggs, and miniaturises the survivors; and the 'attractant pheromone' can be used to lure toad tadpoles into traps," explained Professor Shine.

As the tadpoles of native frogs are not affected by these pheromones, the cane toad chemical signals can be used to target invasive toads with no collateral damage to native species.

"Learning how to speak the cane toads' language is a breakthrough in identifying new weapons for toad control and means we can turn the cane toads' biology against themselves."

The University of Sydney also had two finalists in the Australian Innovation Challenge awards: Dr Mat Todd, from the School of Chemistry, in the Health category, and Dr Michael Biercuk, from the School of Physics, in the Minerals and Energy category.

The awards are run by The Australian newspaper in association with Shell, with the support of the federal Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. They recognise the best ideas and inventions in Australia, and will become an annual event.

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