With the Molecular Horizons (MH) research facility now officially opened and fully operational it was time to ask the Director, Distinguished Professor Antione van Oijen (pictured right), about his plans to ensure the success of the UOW state-of-the-art research facility during the first few critical years of operation.
“The original vision of Molecular Horizons is about integrating different disciplines to better understand disease and to use the same interdisciplinary approach to develop new cures, therapies and medicines. So, in the next five years it's all about growth to strengthen those interdisciplinary teams on campus and not just the basic science, but really focus on integration of the disciplines that then enter the picture when it comes to translating new knowledge into practice.” Said Prof. van Oijen.
Antimicrobial resistance has been identified as an emerging threat to global health, putting millions of lives at risk. How are you and your colleagues working towards slowing the rates of resistance?
“We have a super strong team with the biologists and chemists who work together to try to understand how certain proteins look and work and how disease comes about, but we want to really expand those themes, working with for example, people in the local health districts like regional healthcare providers and the pathology companies, general practitioners and pharmacists, to really build what I like to think of as a regional health research ecosystem.”
And that is important for when the team is ready to translate research into (for example) new drug formulations, which is why they continue to engage with drug companies and other stakeholders.
“We are trying to really work with biotech and pharma industry to provide them with knowledge of the kind of stuff that we do and then bring researchers and companies together to make that translation happen.”
A good example of such a collaboration is the Wollongong Antimicrobial Resistance Research Alliance (WARRA) which Antoine is managing as part of the MH research strategy. WARRA aims to tackle the challenge of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), by developing and testing interventions to stop, or slow down rates of resistance.
The team is working with the local health district and other healthcare providers to understand how drug resistant bacteria travel through the community. The approach is different to that of the pharma industry and shows how MH want to apply innovative methodologies to translate knowledge and have a real impact.
“When you have simple bacterial infections like urinary tract infections (UTIs) for example, we already know that the overuse of antibiotics in the community and hospitals results in an increase in resistance in these bacterial infections. So this is a really tricky problem. It's not because of you as a patient using too many antibiotics and therefore your infections becoming resistant. It's a whole of society problem.”
“When I go to the doctor with an infection, it would be beneficial for my health to take the antibiotic, because it is an important medicine to treat my infection, but on the whole I’m contributing to the to the total use of antibiotics and thus the increase in resistance. So what we're doing at Molecular Horizons is understanding how these bacteria become resistant at a molecular level.”
“We’ve also started working with the pathology companies in the region, the private pathology company, Southern IML as well as New South Wales Health Pathology, trying to understand at a postcode-by-postcode level, in the Illawarra Shoalhaven, where in the region do we see more resistance, where do we see less resistance, and break that data down to the postcode, the age of patients, whether the patients are in an aged care setting, and use that information to then work with the GPs and give them that extra data that might help them with a more precise prescription of antibiotics.”
Currently, doctors consult a national document known as therapeutic guidelines to help make decisions in prescribing certain drugs and antibiotics, however, the guidelines are based on national averages and do not reflect what may be happening in the local region.
“For example, the resistance of E. coli to a particular antibiotic in a certain local suburb may be 2x higher than the national average of resistance. With a closer look at the type of bacteria and infections happening more locally, doctors can make a more informed choice.”
The centrepiece of the new building is the Thermo Fisher Titan Krios Cryogenic Electron microscope - the most powerful microscope of its kind in Australia. Standing at three metres tall, this incredibly high-resolution microscope enables researchers to unravel life at the molecular level.
“Seeing the actual shape of molecules, especially proteins, is the real power of this type of microscope. Think of it like a lock and key. In the body, imagine there is a protein that is not functioning anymore and it’s causing a disease like a cancer. That protein is the lock and we are trying to open it with a drug, which is the key. So instead of fiddling around trying different keys, we can use the microscope to see its exact structure and make a specific key to fit.” Said Prof. van Oijen.
To date, the team have been able to solve a number of bacterial protein structures that were previously unknown.
“That’s really important in understanding how bacteria copy their DNA and understanding when antibiotic resistance actually happens. These processes help researchers develop new drugs for diseases.
We’ve also had a couple of projects with external researchers at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney, where we've helped them in solving structures of proteins that are really important in metabolism. Knowing exactly how the protein looks (at the atomic level) and how it works, allows our Victor Chang partners the opportunity to start thinking about more effective drug development.”
And while the research at MH goes from strength to strength, Antoine is also focused on bridging the gap between teaching at the undergraduate level and research in the lab.
“There is often a gap where undergraduate students, especially in the first and second year, don't really have a lot of exposure to the specialised or interdisciplinary research that we do in the labs, because their curriculum is quite structured.”
Professor van Oijen is using MH as a framework where students enrolled in the new undergraduate Bionanotechnology course, will be able to see firsthand through the practical components of the course, how research is conducted in any of the MH themes: antimicrobial resistance, molecular neurosciences, protein aggregation related diseases and cancer therapies.
“It’s currently the only degree of its kind in Australia and the first cohort have just finished their Honors year, so we've been doing it for four plus years now. Our students, who are really stellar, have the opportunity to see and study high resolution images and videos of proteins that have never been seen before.”
While they are well on their way to becoming the national center for this kind of high-resolution molecular imaging, there is still a lot to do to secure long-term stability for his research team.
MH already has many partners and is collaborating with research groups at other universities, both nationally and overseas. Molecular Horizons recently was awarded funding from the Australian Research Council in a partnership between universities and pharmaceutical companies, led by Monash University, to set up a national framework to train the next generation of researchers to tackle molecular visualisation challenges in drug discovery.
Antoine believes one of the most important partners establishing such national capabilities is the federal government.
“What we have to ensure is that other research groups with similar equipment and goals can work together and convince the federal government that this is a worthwhile national capacity that they need to support, and cover costs involved in things like refreshing equipment and upskilling researchers.”
Additional Notes and Information
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The Molecular Horizons building was officially opened 20th April 2021 by the Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd). Read the full story about the opening
Read about: ‘Building a Dream’
Professor Antione van Oijen