World Health Day 2024: spotlight on MND, asthma and stem cells research

This year we are putting the spotlight on our leading experts who are at the forefront of stem cells research and investigating global health issues Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and lung diseases like asthma.

World Health Day observed annually on 7th April works to raise awareness about worldwide health issues and advocate for universal healthcare access. Led by the World Health Organization (WHO), the day highlights the importance of preventive measures, health education, and equitable healthcare systems to ensure the well-being of all individuals.

This year on World Health Day, we are highlighting the global health issues asthma and MND and the remarkable potential of stem cells in combating diseases. Here’s what our leading experts A/Prof Peter Crouch, Prof Alastair Stewart and Prof Christine Wells had to say about their research.

Motor Neurone Disease (MND)

A/Prof Peter Crouch, Dept of Anatomy & Physiology

Affecting the motor neurons responsible for muscle movement, Motor Neuron Disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a group of neurodegenerative disorders. Despite dedicated research, genetic discoveries and clinical trials a cause and cure has still not been found.

“I've been part of a collaborative effort that has resulted in bench-to-clinic translation of a new drug candidate for treating neurodegenerative disease, focussing on the treatment of MND,” said A/Prof Peter Crouch, Head of the Neurodegenerative Disease Lab and a leading expert in degenerative diseases of the central nervous system.

Last year, A/Prof Peter Crouch secured funding from the FightMND Cure Fund – one of the world’s largest funders of MND research - to look at a new compound and its potential as a treatment for ALS, involving inhibition of a specific mitochondrial enzyme.

Mitochondria produce the chemical energy that sustains life. Their function is altered in the ALS-affected brain and spinal cord and this has detrimental effects on energy-hungry motor neurons. The new compound we are researching shows great capacity to reach the brain and spinal cord - an essential requirement for ALS drugs.

Asthma and Chronic Lung Diseases

Prof Alastair Stewart, Dept of Biochemistry & Pharmacology

Around 2.7 million people had asthma in 2020-21 in Australia. Prof Alastair Stewarts research group is looking at new ways of studying chronic lung and other diseases, like asthma, with body-on-a-chip technologies which allow new drugs to be evaluated in medium term tissue injury and repair responses. These new technologies use human cells to construct micro-tissues from patients with asthma, COPD or lung fibrosis.

Alastair has also been Involved in biobanking project on thunderstorm asthma: “As a result of the project the risk factors for thunderstorm asthma are now better understood and this has resulted in much improved public health measures - immediately before the hayfever season and throughout the year.”

  • Prof Stewart featured in our Master of Biomedical Science Spotlight Series, Research Possibilities. Watch the series now

Stem Cells Systems

Prof Christine Wells, Dept of Anatomy & Physiology

Prof Christine Wells and her research group work with induced pluripotent stem cells to generate virtual models of cell differentiation, which are then used to invent new methods to generate white blood cells in the laboratory.

I am particularly interested in the role of the immune system in tissue repair and regeneration, so we use our digital and laboratory models as a discovery platform for the factors that promote healing after injury.

Christine says it’s an exciting time for research in this area.

“We can work across biological scales of molecular-interactions, cellular interactions, and tissue remodelling. In the future, I expect we will be able to monitor these processes in real time, using the cells themselves as the instruments for health updates in tissues undergoing repair. We need to work across different scientific disciplines, applying mathematics, synthetic biology, genetics and stem cell biology to invent the cells that will be used in future medicines.”