Mabs Melville scholarship recipients Dr Camilla Whittington and Dr Angela Crean have been awarded L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science Fellowships, which will ensure more important research into the biology of reproduction.
Dr Angela Crean and Dr Camilla Whittington are early career researchers in the University of Sydney School of Veterinary Science. Both are conducting research in the area of fertility and reproduction, and both won last year’s coveted L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science Fellowships, worth $25,000 each. Angela and Camilla were also recipients of a scholarship made possible by a generous bequest from the late Mabs Melville.
Dr Angela Crean is a marine biologist who was recently awarded the prestigious 2017 Young Tall Poppy Science Award. Her current focus is male fertility. “My research looks at how a male’s environment – his diet and social group – affects his sperm quality and how changes in sperm quality affect his offspring,” she explains. “In the past, I did this from an evolution ecology viewpoint. I was working with sea squirts and flies. It dawned on me that the research could be applied to human reproduction.”
Angela’s initial research showed that males can not only adjust sperm quality and quantity in response to reproductive competition, but that the quality has adaptive consequences for fertilisation and offspring survival. Angela now hopes to apply what she has learnt to mammalian reproduction, including human infertility.
“The Mabs Melville bequest has allowed me to join the veterinary scientists at Sydney, learn about mammalian reproduction, and test the ideas I have been generating,” she says.
These ideas will be tested for use with assisted reproductive technology. Using a mouse model, Angela has conducted an initial trial on sugar in a male’s diet and has discovered sperm swim faster on a high sugar diet.
“I will be starting work with an IVF group to see whether we can use seminal fluid to boost sperm quality and motility,” says Angela. “If we can do that, reproductive technologies may work better and inter-uterine insemination success rates may increase, so we can eliminate the final step of IVF. That is the ideal I am working towards.”
On another side of the fertility equation, Dr Camilla Whittington (PhD, VetScience, ’11) is undertaking fundamental research to understand the biology of the placenta and how nutrients are transported during pregnancy. This investigation will assist her to determine the causes of foetal malnutrition and disease in mammals, including humans.
“The Mabs Melville scholarship specifically funded research into mammalian pregnancy,” says Camilla. “It helped us to understand how pregnancy works in a range of different species, and has allowed us to leverage further funding for research into pregnancies in reptiles and sharks.”
The benefits, she says, are twofold. Firstly, understanding the biology of some of Australia’s endangered native species could assist future captive breeding programs. Secondly, by learning how pregnancies evolve over millions of years, we may discover more about human reproductive biology.
Camilla is investigating how the complex placenta has evolved in many different species and will compare placenta transport mechanisms of critical nutrients in mammals, reptiles and fish. She aims to identify the genes specific to nutrient transport across all three species.
“We are studying species which are abundant, easy to work with, and good models for intractable species that are endangered,” she says. “If we can understand how placenta functions work normally, we can work out what may be going wrong in conditions such as foetal malnutrition. It’s the first step towards developing treatments for this problem. And we can apply it to humans, companion animals and livestock as well.”
The University was one of eight beneficiaries of the estate of the late Mabs Melville, receiving more than $6 million towards veterinary science.
“The gift presents priceless opportunities to enhance teaching and research,” says Rosanne Taylor, Dean of the Sydney School of Veterinary Science.
“We have been able to attract the most outstanding talent to advance our understanding of the fundamental biology of reproduction. Their insights will inform new applications in assisted reproductive technology and support of pregnancy, benefiting our animal breeding of domestic animals and wildlife. Past advances in reproductive physiology, pioneered here in Veterinary Science have made major contributions, and we have high hopes that Camilla and Angela’s research will open exciting new avenues to enhancing reproductive performance in animals and in people.”
Mabs Melville’s bequest contributes to INSPIRED – the campaign to support the University of Sydney. Every dollar raised through INSPIRED helps fund the pursuit of ideas that will shape the world in which we live.
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