Entry for:2020 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
I Investigate a novel therapeutic, developed by my lab, that holds the promise to curb the progression of severe forms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD results from accumulation of body fat and because symptoms appear only at advanced stages of disease, it is a hidden killer. NAFLD can develop into cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, and can lead to liver failure, and death.
It is estimated that 95% of obese people and 65% of overweight people would be diagnosed with NAFLD detected by ultrasounds, and since 3/4 of the population in Queensland are overweight or obese, my work can potentially benefit over 1 million local people. NAFLD is a debilitating disease and poses a heavy economic burden to Queensland. Our increasingly overweight population costs Queensland twice as much as electricity and I can mitigate this burden through my work.
NAFLD is predicted to become the next global epidemic. NAFLD is a chronic liver disease resulting from liver fat accumulation and persistent liver injury. It is well established that NAFLD is highly associated with lifestyle factors and commonly accompanies metabolic dysregulation. Moreover, NAFLD is highly intertwined with the metabolic syndrome, a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Currently, there are many effective management drugs for the comorbidities that commonly accompany NAFLD. Nevertheless, none of them successfully curb the progressive and life threatening forms of NAFLD. However, my newly discovered therapeutic prevents the development of liver fat and reverses progression of NAFLD.
In simple terms, NAFLD occurs due to an imbalance of increased energy intake and decreased energy expenditure leading to obesity, which is now considered to be a chronic inflammatory disease in its own right. In obesity, fat cells, also known as adipocytes, become enlarged and this is stressful to these cells. Consequently, enlarged fat cells recruit immune cells to clear excessive fat content inside adipocytes, this is what is called a sterile inflammation response (inflammation caused by cellular stress alone, not pathogens). During states of chronic inflammation, a type of fat, usually stored in the adipose tissue in the form of triglycerides, spills over to organs that normally don't accumulate fat, such as the liver, heart, skeletal muscle and pancreas.
Interestingly, we postulate that my lab's therapy works by manipulating a particular cell of the innate immune system, recently discovered to participate in fat metabolism, to effectively clear excessive triglycerides inside hepatocytes (main cells of the liver). Fatty hepatocytes are the hallmark of NAFLD and this is what my therapeutic targets. My data show that hepatocytes become cleared from fat after treatment. Possible mechanisms of action include inducing a more efficient fat clearance hepatocytes and accelerating hepatocytes turnover.
One of my aims is to mitigate the heavy economic burden that NAFLD represents to Queensland. But what is most important to me is that my work can solve a health issue present in 25% of the population in Queensland. NAFLD is a very debilitating chronic disease, that affects the physical and mental health of those suffering from it.
I have a passion for science communication. As part of the Translational Research Symposium (TRS) 2019's committee, I created something different that engaged local Brisbane year 7 students. The TRS happens yearly but for last year, we chose the theme “Science Communication” and I implemented a novel session that we called “Talk Science to Me”. I aimed at leveraging this segment to achieve two things: 1) develop communication skills in scientists (how we should communicate more simply and effectively to a lay audience) and 2) entice interest in biomedical science at local schools, specially in young girls.
For this event, I invited 30 year 7 students from a local state high school in Brisbane. I worked very closely with the school. I requested gender equality in the selection process because I wanted to encourage young girls to participate.
During the TRS 2019, the students were invited to attend to 8 presentations from real scientists and to choose their preferred presentation. I was the Chair of the "Talk Science to Me" session and explained to the students that they should judge the presentations based on how easy it was to understand and how interesting it was. The presentations were excellent as the researchers managed to deliver their speech according to their audience.
For the TRS 2019, I raised AUD$ 2,000 to pay for the students' meals, transportation and the DNA extraction and quantification experiment they performed in a real PC2 lab.
The initiative was a success and I later received a grant from the Translational Research Institute that enabled me to invite over 400 year 7 students to experience a day as a scientist at TRI. I recruited 14 TRI-based scientists to teach the students basic concepts of genetics and how to extract and quantify DNA from strawberries and bananas.
These were positive initiatives that engaged the young community onto doing real science in a fun way. My aims were to both spark an interest for science in local students and to encourage scientists to communicate to the general public using simple and plain language.
Due to my passion for science communication, I was recently invited to represent Mater Research students at the 2020 TRI Mentoring Network Program. I also enjoy teaching histology to medical students at The University of Queensland.
Finally, I’m here to prove that is never too late to start a new career, I am a mature PhD student and a mother of two, Alex is 10 years old and Sofia is 7 years old. Science gave me more meaning to my life that I felt was missing 6 years ago, before starting my Bachelor of Biomedical Science.