JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Australia's young Einsteins get the red-carpet treatment

Date

The best young scientific minds in the country are finally getting recognised for the incredible work they do.

Seeing the light: Rebecca Segrave.

Seeing the light: Rebecca Segrave. Photo: Wayne Taylor/Getty Images

If young scientists had the celebrity status of movie stars, cancer researcher Ross Hamilton would be idolised like Zac Efron. Neuropsychologist Rebecca Segrave would have as many Twitter followers as Kim Kardashian, and BuzzFeed would write 37 Reasons why Sonia Troeira Henriques Sizzles for Science.

But in a world where socialites are held in higher esteem than scientists, there’s a good chance you have never heard of any of these next generation researchers, each of whom is working on cures for colorectal cancer, depression or leukemia.

The reality is no one really knows a lot about how the brain works. 

Nady Braidy

Last month 15 of the country’s most accomplished early career researchers, including Hamilton, Segrave and Troeira Henriques, were invited to the Nobel Laureate meetings -  the science equivalent of Woodstock - in Lindau, Germany. 

Brain wave: Nady Braidy wants to understand relationship between ageing and Alzheimer's.

Brain wave: Nady Braidy wants to understand relationship between ageing and Alzheimer's. Photo: Wolter Peeters

It was a rare occasion for these young scientists to act like stars, mingling with the luminaries of their profession, Nobel prize winners from around the world. There was even a red carpet.

‘‘It’s not often in science that you feel recognised,’’ says Hamilton.

‘‘Often you’re just toiling under the radar and no one really knows or appreciates what you are doing,’’ he says.

Prevention: Ross Hamilton says there is no need for people to be dying of colon cancer.

Prevention: Ross Hamilton says there is no need for people to be dying of colon cancer.

To celebrate National Science Week, which begins on August 16, we’re introducing you to a few of this country’s real celebrities.  

Magic molecules

Sonia Troeria Henriques works on peptides. While most people associate these molecules with the recent doping scandal in sport, these chains of amino acids have many more uses than beefing up professional athletes.

Biochemist: Footballers have given peptides a bad name, but Sonia Troeira Henriques uses them for good.

Biochemist: Footballers have given peptides a bad name, but Sonia Troeira Henriques uses them for good.

Troeria Henriques, a biochemist, uses a group of peptides, called cyclotides, to build scaffolds for drugs.

Cyclotides are very stable molecules, making them perfect for protecting medicines from harsh enzymes inside the stomach. 

‘‘We use [peptides] to stabilise unstable drugs,’’ she says.

Big data: Hannah Moore tracks the spread of infectious diseases.

Big data: Hannah Moore tracks the spread of infectious diseases.

At the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience, Troeria Henriques is constructing scaffolds for drugs that target Helicobacter pylori, the most common bacterial infection in humans, and the highest risk factor for developing gastric cancer. 

She is also working on a platform for drugs that treat chronic myeloid leukemia. People with this condition often develop resistance to available medicines so Troeria Henriques is developing a next generation treatment that is less prone to resistance.

‘‘I’m interested in how the models work,’’ says the 33-year-old. Troeria Henriques's work highlights the importance of basic research, which has ‘‘suffered’’ from recent budget cuts. 

‘‘Basic research is the basis of medical research and drug development,’’ she says.

Big picture predictions

Hannah Moore likes to work on the big picture. She tried being a scientist in a laboratory but found the time and focus spent on a single experiment frustrating. ‘‘It just wasn’t for me,’’ she says.

Now an epidemiologist, Moore tracks the spread of infections as they move through communities. She likes nothing better than sitting in front of her computer poring over mammoth sets of numbers.   

‘‘I like working on data for the total population, not just a few patients,’’ she says.

Since completing her PhD, Moore has worked at the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth where she examines data collected from laboratories and hospitals to understand infections in children.

Infections are the most common reason children under two are admitted to hospital. Respiratory infections such as bronchiolitis, whooping cough and influenza make up the bulk of those.

Various factors influence the spread of these diseases such as climate and vaccination programs. But Moore says these can also be used to predict an infection peak.

Part of Moore’s research is trying to understand why her home state of Western Australia has the lowest vaccination coverage in the country.

Moore is passionate about involving the community in science and research. 

‘‘We’re doing research for the benefit of mankind so we need to make sure were looking into something that’s going to make a difference to people’s lives,’’ she says.

Beating the big C 

While a lot of cancer research focuses on treatments or cures for patients who have developed a form of cancer, Ross Hamilton wants to stop tumours from growing in your colon in the first place.

‘‘We’re trying to detect pre-cancerous polyps before they turn cancerous,’’ says Hamilton, from the CSIRO.

Not all colon polyps progress into cancer, but most cases of the cancer in the organ originate from some type of abnormal growth. 

‘‘If it’s detected early enough, you can have an operation and be completely fine,’’ Hamilton says.

‘‘Nobody needs to die from colon cancer,’’ he says.

Hamilton is interested in a specific type of polyp, called SSA, which can quickly develop into tumours but are difficult to detect during a colonoscopy. 

With a specific focus on prevention, Hamilton has sequenced the genome of these SSA polyps, and their resulting tumours, to identify specific bio-markers that can be used to confirm their presence.

Ultimately bio-markers could be used in a test for the disease, says Hamilton, whose motivation to study cancer came from his aunt’s experience with the disease. 

‘‘It’s touching more and more lives so I thought it was somewhere I could make an impact,’’ he says. 

Be calm, black dog 

Rebecca Segrave’s interest in mental illness began as a teenager, when she watched a family friend struggle with biopolar disorder.

‘‘I was fascinated by [the disease] but really discouraged by the stigma that she faced around her illness,’’ she says. 

The experience encouraged her to study psychology at university, and, after completing several degrees, Segrave became both a clinical neuropsychologist and researcher.

Last year Segrave took a break from treating patients to focus her time at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre studying depression, a condition that one in seven Australians will experience at some time. 

‘‘I’m trying to understand that bias in negative thinking that people get when they are depressed.’’

Segrave has developed strategies that retrain the brain on how not to focus on negative thoughts as a possible treatment for depression. 

One treatment involves a combination of gentle brain stimulation and an exercise program for a specific part of the brain that is often underactive in people with depression.

In a small pilot study, Segrave's combined therapy achieved prolonged improvements in patients with major depression. 

‘‘It's early days but our results were really encouraging,’’ she says. Segrave is now conducting a larger follow-up trial.

Inside the Alzheimer's enigma

Without a major medical breakthrough almost 900,000 Australians will have developed some form of dementia by 2050. 

But the challenge scientists face in trying to find a cure for such diseases is that they understand so little about the brain itself, says Nady Braidy.

‘‘We hear a lot of the heart and the kidneys but the reality is no one really knows a lot about how the brain works,’’ he says.

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, scientists know ageing is the biggest risk factor, but not everyone who reaches old age develops the disease.

To unravel this paradox, Braidy, who works at UNSW’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, studies the biological mechanisms of both Alzheimer’s disease and ageing.

His focus is on a molecule called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, NAD+, which is found in every cell of the body and is crucial for repairing damage to DNA caused by natural ageing processes. 

Alzheimer’s patients have reduced levels of the NAD.

‘‘We propose that by increasing NAD early on during life we can mitigate the development of diseases with significant oxidative stress and NAD depletion such as Alzheimer’s disease," he says.

Braidy and his colleagues have invented a drug that can increase the amount of NAD in the body, which they plan to trial in humans in the near future. 

Featured advertisers