Bridget Murphy and Dr Peter Domachuk are Fresh Science 2010 winners

15 June 2010

Bridget Murphy, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences, is a Fresh Science 2010 winner.
Bridget Murphy, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences, is a Fresh Science 2010 winner.

Bridget Murphy, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences, and Dr Peter Domachuk, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Physics, are Fresh Science 2010 winners. Fresh Science is a national competition that identifies new and interesting research being done by early-career scientists around the country and gives winners the chance to tell their stories to the media and other audiences.

Bridget and Peter are two of only sixteen scientists chosen from over 130 nominations across Australia this year to present their science to media, school students, the general public, scientists, government and industry at the Fresh Science event held from 7 until 10 June 2010 in Melbourne.

Both University of Sydney researchers were selected from the many nominations for their intriguing research and ability to explain it to non-scientists.

"I'm very excited about being chosen as a Fresh Scientist, but also pretty nervous!" said Bridget before embarking on her science communication adventure.

"Presenting my research in an engaging and interesting way for each of those different audiences will be a challenge, but one I'm looking forward to. As a scientist, you are used to expressing your research in certain ways for scientific journals and conferences, but you have to take a step back and think about how you can explain what your research is about to people who don't necessarily have a science background," said Bridget.

Bridget need not have been nervous - she won a bottle of wine for the best explanation of her research without using any scientific jargon, given in the time it took for a sparkler to burn out, at Fresh Science at the Pub. This free event, held in a Melbourne pub, engages the Fresh Scientists directly with the public and is very popular.

Silk microchips for high-tech medical tests

Peter and his colleagues in the Institute of Photonics and Optical Sciences, in the School of Physics, have created microchips using silk fibres which can be used in medical tests. In the lab, they've demonstrated that these microchips can measure oxygen using haemoglobin embedded in the silk.

"We need a technology for medical detection that is instantaneous, minimally invasive, cost-efficient, and simultaneously measures a large number of factors that are vital to human health. Current methods for gathering diagnostic data involve discomfort for patients, skilled application, and lengthy and expensive laboratory tests," said Peter.

While working with Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto and Professor David Kaplan at Tufts University, in Boston, USA, Peter and his colleagues realised that refining raw silk fibre in a certain way extracts pure silk fibroin - the protein that underpins the strength of silk.

They discovered that this material has several valuable properties, which led Peter to propose that silk fibroin could be the basis for a solid, transparent, disposable chip with all of the diagnostic advantages medical science has been seeking.

"Fibroin has breathtaking optical clarity, in contrast to the cloudy yellow opaqueness of natural silk fibre. Because it's clear, fibroin can be used to display tiny drops of thousands of different biochemical compounds in patterns where they are no farther apart than the width of a human hair. These test compounds can then be simultaneously exposed to and react with body fluids such as human blood," explained Peter.

"The particularly interesting thing about silk is that the biochemical compounds we embed into it retain their activity. This biochemical activity enables extra sensitivity for monitoring and detecting medical conditions," said Peter.

"Fibroin is also able to accommodate tiny surface structures that can be used to control light, which can then be used as a sensitive probe for improved medical testing.

"What's more, silk doesn't trigger the human immune response when it comes into contact with tissue. This unique combination of properties opens up a host of exciting opportunities in biomedical science and engineering."

Realising these properties makes silk fibroin a unique candidate for implantable biochips, Peter went ahead developing these microchips that can sit in or under the skin and detect chemicals in the blood. This can allow quick and accurate determination of medical conditions without the need for expensive laboratory-based pathology.

Peter aims to embed a wide range of proteins so dozens of blood tests can be run simultaneously at the point of care instead of waiting for the pathology lab.

"I'm confident that the technology can lower healthcare costs and reduce patient risk. We hope that within the decade our silk chips will be at work in every hospital, GP clinic and home," said Peter.

What can Australian lizards tell us about the evolution of cancer and live birth?

Bridget's research explores the evolution of cancer and live birth, through a cancer protein found in a live-bearing Australian lizard. Biologists hypothesise that there may be an evolutionary connection between live-birth and cancer susceptibility in animals, and Bridget has found a new link between the two by discovering a potent cancer protein in nature which has previously only been found in laboratory grown cells.

"My discovery of the cancer protein - vascular endothelial growth factor VEGF111 - in the uterus of an Australian lizard provides a new link between the evolution of live birth and cancer in animals," explained Bridget.

"Cancer cells and embryos employ similar strategies to ensure survival in their host (or mother!). Both must avoid immunological rejection by 'hiding' from the host's immune system, and both develop an extensive network of blood vessels to get oxygen and nutrients for growth," said Bridget.

"Scientists propose that cancers may be using the molecular machinery that originally evolved to allow embryonic development in live-bearing animals. In essence, animals that evolved to give live birth may have an increased susceptibility to cancer."

One agent that links live-bearing animals with cancer are proteins called vascular endothelial growth factors - VEGF. These proteins produce blood vessels in many body tissues, including reproductive organs and cancerous tumours. By creating blood vessels that can feed the growth of cancer cells, VEGF has long been considered a potent cancer agent. So potent, in fact, that many anti-cancer drugs on the market work by sticking to VEGF and stopping its mode of action.

"I have discovered the first natural occurrence of VEGF111, which I found in a shy native Australian lizard, the three-toed skink (Saiphos equalis). Using sophisticated genetic techniques, I identified types of VEGF in the uterus of six Australian lizards when they were pregnant," explained Bridget.

"It is likely that VEGF111 produces blood vessels in the lizard's uterus during pregnancy, helping the skink to give birth to live young.

"Ultimately, my aim is to find out how VEGF111 works in the three-toed skink. If I can figure out how to disable VEGF111 in the lizard, this could form the basis of a new treatment for some cancers," said Bridget.

"Unlocking the secrets of VEGF111 could also be used to promote wound healing or regenerate blood vessels in patients with cardiovascular disease."

Fresh Science is a national event which has been running for thirteen years, managed by science communication consultancy Science in Public. Fresh Science brings together scientists, the media and the public, with the aim of enhancing reporting of Australian science, highlighting and encouraging debate on the role of science in Australian society, and providing role models for the next generation of Australian scientists.

Read more about the 2010 Fresh Scientists at:

Contact: Katynna Gill

Phone: 02 9351 6997

Email: 3f194708575e2f1613105d3a031903305a272c46322c4d5f3713