Insights and connections key to the success of our first SBS "e-conference"

"Unprecedented" is a word we have been hearing a lot in 2020 – amidst COVID-19, working from home, social distancing and the health of the world amidst a global pandemic. When the school met in 2019 who could have imagined the changes ahead. And so we looked to another word we are all using a lot – Zoom – leading to the creation of our MinE School Conference, a condensed forum across two half days with a dose of Monty Python in the middle!

For those who were unable to join us or for those who did and would like a recap, Erica Fletcher and Peter Crouch, as members of the Research Committee and organisers of the event, shared with us these "take-aways"…

Our annual conference is designed to hear about recent research achievements across the School. Day One showcased research across the School’s departments involved in COVID-19 research, whilst Day Two focused on the extraordinary achievements of our early and mid career researchers.

Day One opened with an inspiring and timely presentation by Professor Kanta Subbarao from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, who provided a virologist’s perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic, describing the history of the pandemic and recent research critical for developing a vaccine and other treatment strategies. Kanta also highlighted for us the achievements that have been made towards developing a COVID-19 vaccine and talked further about the challenges that remain. As we have seen in the news, almost daily, the contribution of the Doherty Institute in this effort remains inspiring. A few sites Kanta listed which may be of interest include:

Professor Subbarao was followed by four speakers from the different departments of the School:

  • Professor Katherine Kedzierska outlined her group’s work on the immune responses of those infected with COVID-19, highlighting that different responses may underpin different severity of disease.
  • Professor Michael Parker outlined his group’s modelling work that underpins the development of new therapies for COVID-19.
  • Dr Enzo Porrello outlined his group’s work on developing and using cardiac-induced pluripotent stem cells as a drug screening tool.
  • Finally, Professor Alastair Stewart outlined his group’s work using novel in vitro culturing systems as a means for drug screening lung tissue. He also highlighted the importance of targeting lung fibrosis for improving long-term outcomes of COVID-19.

All in all – it was a highly stimulating and interesting morning.

Day two featured our EMCRA Collaborative Award session.

EMCRA was established to support early and mid-career researchers in the School of Biomedical Sciences and, importantly, to also encourage and facilitate collaboration between departments.

The day was opened by the Dean of MDHS, Professor Shitij Kapur who provided an insightful "peek" into his own career and the progress of research within his own speciality, Psychiatry. This included the changes to the DSM regarding requirement of clinical significance, and an observation that in 10 years over 204,000 articles and 3,000 distinct clinical tests are available, yet there remains no tests specific to psychiatric diagnosis – in real life, disorders overlap and "clean" definitions don’t exist in nature. Even amidst the big data push, technical success is not enough: there needs to be clinical utility. In summation, thinking has evolved over the last 30 years – but we are not there yet.

The Dean was followed by four recent winners of the EMCRA Collaborative Award*:

Dr Jeffrey Liddell, Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Identifying the glial neurotoxic factor/s responsible for neurodegeneration

Dr Liddell described a pathway to neuronal death involving activated microglia and neurotoxic Astrocytes – the pathway is instigated by altered copper and iron levels. Its involvement in motor neurone disease was shown, along with evidence for therapeutic mitigation.

Dr Mariana Melo, Department of Physiology

Is cardiorespiratory regulation affected by perinatal cannabinoid exposure?

The perception persists that cannabis use is safe, and it is not uncommon for women to use cannabis during pregnancy. Dr Melo is assessing the impact of perinatal exposure to constituents of cannabis, such as THC, on cardiorespiratory function on newborns. Her results to date indicate THC has a significant impact on cardiorespiratory regulation in newborns following exposure during the perinatal period.

Dr Michael Morgan, Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience

Elucidating roles of BDNF in osteoarthritis pain using peptide mimetics

Dr Morgan hypothesises that BDNF mediates osteoarthritis pain by activating p75NTR and TrkB on nociceptors and that inhibiting these receptors may provide pain relief. This pathway is being targeted using novel therapeutic agents. Outcomes to date are supportive of the hypothesis, including evidences for the pathway in neurones that innervate the bone and/or articular tissue, and evidences for the action of p75 and TrkB agonists.

Dr Stacey Keenan, Department of Physiology

Targeting fat: Characterisation of protein-protein interactions regulating lipid metabolism

Dr Keenan’s project relates to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and the focus is examining how protein-protein interactions may be contributing to altered lipid metabolism. Proteomic analyses identified HSD17b11 as a novel interacting protein associated with lipid droplets. Regulation of HSD17b11 expression affects lipid droplet size and number, and also their lipid constituents.

And yes – we did mention Monty Python! Voted by attendees as the Netflix party movie and, as it always does, served as light relief and a good belly laugh between the sessions.

Certainly a full agenda and by all reports a successful foray into the "new" world of conference by Zoom. Thank you to our presenters for taking the time to share their expertise so willingly and also, of course, to the over 300 people for making the time to attend as part of the School's collaborative focus across and between departments.

* The EMCRA Collaborative Award is a seed funding scheme designed and implemented by EMCRA itself.  The scheme is open to Level A and Level B researchers within the school, and successful applicants are generally awarded $10,000 – $20,000 for a 12-month project.