Entry for:2020 Queensland Women in STEM Prize
I’m using the Fraser Island funnel web spider to improve outcomes for ischemic stroke patients. Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability. Two million brain cells are lost every minute as stroke goes untreated. With vast distances in Queensland, accessing appropriate medical attention in a critical time frame is a major problem. In the venom of the funnel web is a molecule, called Hi1a, which protects the brain against stroke-induced damage. Preclinical studies have shown that Hi1a can be given up to 8 hours after stroke, preventing further brain damage. By exploring multiple methods for production of Hi1a, I have been able to boost yields 20-fold so that I can make enough drug for clinical trials. We envisage using Hi1a as a treatment that can be given on the spot by first responders at the first signs of stroke, particularly beneficial for high risk patients in regional areas.
This project aims to provide long-term socioeconomic benefits to Queensland and Australia through the development of a drug to minimise brain damage resulting from stroke. Nearly 20% of Australia’s strokes occur in Queensland. In fact, Queenslanders will suffer more than 10,000 strokes this year alone, predicted to more than double in the next 30 years. The impact of stroke on quality of life is so severe that two-thirds of survivors require daily assistance. In economic terms, stroke costs Australia around $5 billion per year, which includes $3 billion in lost productivity. Eighty-five percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes, caused by a blood clot in the brain.
Hi1a has the potential to revolutionise stroke treatment. Current drug treatments have such restricted use that only 5% of patients actually receive them. Even then, they are only designed to remove the clot, rather than address the resulting brain damage. Medical imaging is always required before treatment and this further delays administration, and throughout this process brain cells continue to die. As cells die, they trigger more damage, activating specific ion channels and promoting further cell death. If you consider these channels as doors to the cells that allow damaging ions inside, Hi1a is the key that we can use to lock the doors.
Preclinical studies in a rodent model of stroke have shown promising results. In the model, Hi1a can be given up to 8 hours after a stroke in order to prevent ongoing brain damage that would otherwise continue over hours and days. Furthermore, due to the low toxicity and high specificity of Hi1a, we expect it to be safe to give in every case, so that if a patient is misdiagnosed or has a non-ischemic stroke, Hi1a will not cause any ill-effects.
Hi1a is a complex molecule that is intrinsically difficult to produce, but I have developed a production pipeline that provides enough material to move towards clinical trials, which otherwise would not be possible. Now that production is not a major bottleneck, Hi1a can also be followed-up in other medical applications, such as in protecting heart tissue against damage sustained during a heart attack, where pilot experiments have also shown promise.
I am delighted to see my research move towards clinical trials and I hope to add to the major medical breakthroughs emerging from Queensland, such as Gardasil and the Nanopatch, and to build upon Queensland’s international reputation for scientific discovery and innovation.
A treatment such as Hi1a could be a groundbreaking intervention that would save lives, improve quality-of-life for survivors, and reduce the socioeconomic burden of stroke and beyond.
A major aspect of encouraging women into STEM is making science accessible and relatable to the broader community. I hope my research inspires girls to dream big and pursue a career in STEM so that we can ultimately achieve gender equality at higher professional levels.
I often participate in engagement activities, explaining my research to school children and adults. I act as a Science Ambassador for the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, engaging the general public at community events, including ‘Meet the Researchers’ and ‘Stroke Week’ functions. I really enjoy hosting ‘spider stations’, an event where we display our ‘star’ spiders and explain how they are indispensable in our research. It is amazing to see young minds blown away by the possibilities presented by venom research. This year I have also volunteered for the World Science Festival Brisbane.
ABC’s Catalyst program will be featuring my work in a show dedicated to venom research later this year, I am currently liaising with producers to put together the content. I have also authored an article about spiders for the general interest Science and Technology website ‘The Conversation’.
Citizen science is another great way to involve the public in scientific research. In my spare time, I have contributed to citizen science projects including neuronal mapping with EyeWire and transcription of records in Australian museum entomology collections using DigiVol.
I also act as a mentor and role model to younger female scientists and students. Several of the female students I have worked closely with have gone on to be employed in STEM industries. My contributions to the field of toxinology have been recognized through a travel award from the journal Toxins, that allowed me to disseminate my research at the 2017 World Congress of the International Society for Toxinology, the largest international conference in the field. I have also been nominated for a discovery and innovation award within my institute. I am a member of the Women in Technology network and this year, I will be trained up to become part of the UQ Ally Network, supporting and promoting gender and sexual diversity and inclusivity at the university.