Entry for:Queensland Women in STEM Research Prize 2016
1. Summary (Provide a short plain English summary of your work, ~150 words)
Mmmm, sticky toffee. Great in your dessert, but not in your blood vessels. Did you know that for many people with diabetes, this is a serious problem leading to blindness, kidney disease, foot amputations and heart attacks? Over many years, my team have been trying to understand why this “toffee making” chemistry happens in our bodies. Even if you have great diet, when you get diabetes, your cells are able to make toffee from ingredients other than sugar, including fats and proteins. This can also affect our cell power stations, the mitochondria, since these powerhouses use these ingredients to generate energy for the everyday tasks we need to perform. We have discovered and tested medicines which slow toffee making in our bodies to a backyard rather than industrial pace and these drugs could be new treatments for the millions of Australian individuals affected by diabetes.
2. Description (Describe the benefit of your research to Queenslanders, ~500 words)
Diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the world. More than a million Australian’s are affected by diabetes with hundreds of thousands of these living in Queensland. Many of these individuals will have feet amputated, go blind, need a kidney transplant or die prematurely from a heart attack. Not surprisingly, the disease process leading to these complications of diabetes, impacts their and their families’ quality of life. Beside this personal cost, there is a growing financial burden of diabetes, where it is estimated to consume the entire federal and state health care budgets by 2050, leaving no money to treat any other disease. Previous researchers have worked hard to prevent diabetes complications by discovery of better treatments and by giving the best medical care possible. This is an enormous challenge and so far we can only slightly slow down, but not stop their development.
Diabetes is a complex disease and it has taken my team many years to understand how the pathways we are researching cause damage to affected organs. We are still learning! This has involved collaborating to use state of the art technology, including advanced computing/optics on unique microscopes and clinical imaging magnets at the Translational Research Institute and the Centre for Advanced Imaging at the University of Queensland. In order to assist us in understanding how our body’s power stations, mitochondria, make energy and how this goes wrong in diabetes to make toffee, we use “Seahorse” technology. We also collaborate with the Australian referral Centre for Mitochondrial Diseases at the Murdoch Children’s Institute in Melbourne And the University of California, San Diego USA. The generation of power by our mitochondria also leave unique fingerprints in our organs and bloodstream which we are examining, with expert assistance from the UQ Node of Metabolomics Australia. This has been interfaced with clinical knowledge of how the disease develops and progresses in patients by our collaboration with specialists at both Mater and Princess Alexandra Hospitals in the departments of Endocrinology and Nephrology.
The objective of my team is to discover new treatments for diabetes complications and ensure that these make the fastest track possible into clinics and hospitals where they can be of use to patients. Currently we have two medicines we are actively testing, obtained from small international biotechnology companies. Once we have sufficient data, we will work with the scientific and commercial teams in these companies (Antipodean and Khondrion) to begin human trials. This would also include regulatory, legal and clinical collaborators to prioritise the most promising medicine to treat diabetes complications and administer it in the most safe and effective manner. In this area, even a slowing of the disease process could positively affect the lives of thousands of Queenslanders.
3. Additional Details (Short biography, list of key collaborators and summary of your track-record, ~500 words)
My research output is of the highest quality (more than 150 papers with >5000 citations), complimented by my leadership roles on national and international committees including the Diabetes Australia Research Program and the Australian Diabetes Society Board of Directors, setting policy, research agendas and awarding grant funding for type 1 diabetes and its complications. I also actively advocate for diabetes, science, medicine and research in the wider community including in the media through many national programs (such as Scientists in Schools; Café Scientifique and SPARQ-ED). During National Science Week, I have represented women in science both on the Steve Astin Morning program, 612 ABC radio (2015) and as part of 100 Australian Women scientists promoted by a “WIKI bomb” by the Australian Academy of Science (2014). Through my teaching, I also contribute to the training of the next generation of type 1 diabetes researchers. I was awarded the Commonwealth Health Ministers’ Award for Medical Research for outstanding contribution to research in 2010, and have received other awards for my research, including from the International Diabetes Society (Young Researcher Award), the NH&MRC (Outstanding Achievement Award), a Young Victorian Tall Poppy Award and a Life Science Award from the Brisbane based Women in Technology in 2014.
I completed my PhD at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne Australia (in 2000). Since then, I have consistently received competitive fellowships from Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation international (JDRF) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). My research projects have received support from JDRF international, the National Institutes of Health USA (NIH/NIDDK), NHMRC, Diabetes Australia and Kidney Health Australia and I have been senior member of grant review panels. I have speak regularly at national and international conferences. After my PhD, I was invited to a post-doctoral position, at the University of Melbourne, based at the Austin Hospital (mentored by International leaders in diabetes complications; Profs Mark Cooper; George Jerums). I then moved to the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne in late 2002, and established my own research group and was part of two clinical trials stemming from my work. One of these investigated the efficacy of a medicine to treat diabetic kidney disease as a consequence of type 1 diabetes (NCT00557518, supported by NIH/JDRF).
In 2012, I relocated to Brisbane and joined the Mater Research Institute-The University of Queensland, which is part of the Translational Research Institute (~650 researchers). My work over the past four years has evaluated two new therapies in concert with small biotech companies for diabetic kidney disease and other diabetes complications. In addition, I have engaged many clinical researchers in Brisbane (Johnson-D) and with paediatric (Cotterill-A; Jones-T;Couper-J;Donaghue-K) and transitional Endocrinologists (O’Moore-Sullivan;Prins-J) to study kidney energetics in young people with early evidence of diabetic kidney disease at Mater Adult Hospital. I have a strong commitment to bridging the gaps between clinical and basic research by bringing together multidisciplinary teams to study diabetes and its complications.