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Getting to the heart of it with nanotech

How collaboration enables the future of bioengineering
Dr Anna Waterhouse shares how the Charles Perkins Centre facilitates her research, which focuses on generating new materials, surface coatings and ultimately, new medical devices.
Dr Anna Waterhouse

In the unique partnership between the University of Sydney and its Charles Perkins Centre, Heart Research Institute (HRI) and NSW Health’s Sydney Local Health District (SLHD), early career researchers are enabled to approach their work through a multidisciplinary approach rarely seen anywhere else.

Dr Anna Waterhouse was a Postdoctoral Fellow and Research Scientist at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. As the Cardiovascular Medical Devices Group Leader at HRI and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Central Clinical School, Anna's research focuses on generating new materials, surface coatings and ultimately, new medical devices. Her work at the Charles Perkins Centre aims to improve and develop new medical devices and diagnostics and her lab is in close proximity to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the HRI.

On being drawn to the Charles Perkins Centre space, Anna says, "It was really the opportunity to continue to do multidisciplinary research and be in an environment where people with different backgrounds and training can come together to solve global healthcare problems."

Anna is engaged in two exciting multidisciplinary projects on nano coatings and DNA nano robots to improve cardiovascular health.

Nano coatings and human biology

By linking cell biology with bioengineering, Anna looks at the interactions of materials with the body. For years, accessible materials like stainless steel for stents, and plastics such as that used in Teflon frying pans, are used to make blood vessels. These, however, are not quite compatible with the human body.

Her research involves making new materials for use in clinical settings to treat cardiovascular disease. Existing implant devices can be used among patients, but only because patients are prescribed blood thinning medications. Such medication can have severe side effects, but they are essential to combat the effect of the materials on our body – materials that are inappropriate for the human biology.

The focus of Anna’s work is to create coatings on these familiar implants so that they look like or are not detected by normal human tissue. Some coatings are human proteins, others are super slippery coatings – these coatings can be applied to cardiovascular devices used in blood clotting. 

“Being co-located with SLHD collaborators, such as clinicians like Professor David Celermajer who are also HRI group leaders at RPA hospital is exciting,” says Anna. It allows an examination of assays established at the Charles Perkins Centre with collaborators Professor Tony Weiss, Professor Shaun Jackson and Dr Steven Wise to be tested on patient samples. “What often works in the lab fails clinically with unhealthy people,” she says. “Samples from patients with diabetes, for example, can be tested in the devices the team has created. These devices can simulate blood flow to allow live microscopy, with existing and the new nano coatings.”

The coatings themselves have been developed in collaboration with a team from other parts of the University, from the University of Sydney Nano Institute, School of Chemistry, School of Physics and Faculty of Engineering. And with biology being the critical aspect, she also draws on the expertise at the HRI and Charles Perkins Centre.   

Developing DNA nano robots

A grant from Sydney Nano to Anna and her Charles Perkins Centre colleague, Dr Shelley Wickham from the School of Chemistry and School of Physics allows them to build a team and make a new type of nanoparticle able to detect early stage heart disease. 

The idea is these particles bind to DNA in smart ways, such as binding only to the site of plaque build-up in an artery. As a result of their unique binding properties, the particle robots (‘theranostics‘) will not only be used for diagnosis, but therapeutically, including targeted drug delivery. 

An ambitious project like this involves collaborators from the Charles Perkins Centre, Sydney Nano, RPA, HRI, and multiple faculties within the University; PhD students from the School of Chemistry also benefit as they learn the necessary biological skills. Anna is adamant that co-location is key to the success of such large collaborations.

“It’s very easy to work with group leaders and set up collaborations as well as access to the hospital, because of the location,” says Anna. “So we are able to talk to clinicians and again build research collaborations, which ultimately lead to some fantastic discoveries.”

Dr Anna Waterhouse - Sydney Cardiovascular Research Consortium Fellowship Recipient

Dr Anna Waterhouse, leader of the Cardiovascular Medical Devices Group at Heart Research Institute and member of Charles Perkins Centre, talks about how the SCVRC Fellowship has helped advance her research career.