Latest News

Nature Medicine Paper

A team at the University of Copenhagen led by Professor Janine Erler, including Dr Thomas Cox (now at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research), have developed a method to reveal the structure of tissues by dissolving away cells and leaving the extracellular matrix intact.

Find out more at: https://www.scimex.org/newsfeed/peering-deeper-into-the-matrix and https://www.nature.com/nm/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nm.4352.html

Photo Credit: Erler Lab, University of Copenhagen

MBSANZ Award Winners Announced

At the MBSANZ's night of nights, the Dinner at the Annual Conference, the achievements of the brightest and best were recognised at a glittering awards ceremony. Congratulations to all our award winners and thanks to everyone who took part.

The Herb Tabor Award: Tom Cox

The Journal of Biological Chemistry/Herbert Tabor Young Investigator Awards honour Tabor’s invaluable contributions to the journal and to science as a whole. The awards also recognize the innovators and achievers in new generations of researchers who exemplify Tabor’s values of creativity and scientific excellence. The JBC associate editors select promising young researchers at scientific symposia and meetings throughout the year. Students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty members who’ve not yet received tenure are eligible. The award includes a plaque and a $US 1,500 prize.

The Barry Preston Award: Shireen Lamandé

The BPA is presented by the MBSANZ annually to a senior researcher in the matrix field. The awardee is an outstanding leader distinguished by a sustained record of achievement, commitment to mentoring new researchers and exceptional communication skills.

Barry arrived in Australia from England in the early 1960s and was one of the first lecturers in Biochemistry at the newly established Monash University in Clayton, Victoria.

Barry’s research interest was the application of the principles of physical chemistry to biopolymers. Utilising model systems, Barry made major contributions to the understanding of the transport and excluded volume properties of matrix proteoglycans and hyaluronan. He was an enthusiastic teacher and mentor to young researchers and is remembered with great fondness and respect by those who had the good fortune to work under his guidance.

Barry was the driving force behind the formation of the Connective Tissue Society of Australia and New Zealand, as MBSANZ was then known, in 1975. He was the inaugural president of the society and served as such on four other occasions. He was director and board member of the Arthritis Foundation of Victoria.

Barry passed away in 2000 and in his memory, the MBSANZ established the BPA to honour his achievements in the matrix field. The award is open to any Australian or New Zealand researcher in the matrix field currently at a national or international research institution, who exemplifies the same passion for discovery and commitment to innovation that Barry typified.

Bob Fraser New Investigator Award: Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina and Yu Suk Choi

Applicants for the award are invited every year. Finalists are chosen from submitted abstracts and CVs and are invited to present at the next meeting of MBSANZ. The winner is determined from the oral presentations and the award conferred at the meeting.

Dennis Lowther Award: Sunderajhan Sekar

Dennis established the connective tissue research group at Monash University in the 1960s. This was the first group of its kind in Australia and under Dennis’s leadership developed a strong graduate teaching program. Many of the Australian leaders in the matrix field today, located both in Australia and overseas, can trace their beginnings back to this group.

To continue in the spirit of student mentorship initiated by Dennis, the MBSANZ established the DLA in 1992. The inaugural winner was Kathy Traianedes from St Vincents Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, who presented a poster entitled “Differential induction by retinoic acid of osteopontin and alkaline phosphatase when osteoblasts are grown on collagen”.

Shark Tank Award: iKatch

The inaugural Shark Tank event, sponsored by the Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships Fund at the University of Sydney, involves the ECRs and Students attending the conference forming interdisciplinary teams to develop an idea which they will then Pitch to our panel of "friendly" sharks. The aim is for teams to develop an idea that addresses a specific health and/or technological challenge using the skills and expertise of the group at hand. This may be a commercial product or a specific research question which requires investment or funding from our Sharks. This event is a great opportunity for us to encourage and facilitate collaborations and aid the development of skills vital to the future successes of our young researchers.

TEMTIA VII Meeting

The International Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition Conference held in Melbourne, Australia, 11-14 October, 2015

The 7th biennial International Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition (EMT) Conference (TEMTIA VII) was held in Melbourne, Australia, from 11-14 October, 2015. The conference organising committee included former MBSANZ President, Rik Thomson, and long-term members, Don Newgreen and Guy Lyons.

EMT and its reverse process (MET) are normal processes of cell and tissue modeling during embryogenesis. Errors in this lead to the common birth defects of the heart, face, nervous system and urogenital system. They occur in a state of dynamic feedback with extracellular matrix (ECM) components and other morphogens. EMT/MET are reactivated in normal wound healing, and allow cancer cells to invade their surrounding ECM, and then to establish secondary cancers. Together these constitute metastasis, the cause of most cancer deaths. EMT also underlies pathological fibrosis, which contributes a substantial burden of liver, kidney and lung fibrosis associated with increasingly prevalent diseases such as diabetes.

Because of its importance in embryonic development, cancer dissemination and fibrosis, EMT meetings have traditionally concerned only one of these disciplines. The TEMTIA meetings have been intentionally cross-disciplinary, and previously were divided into sessions based on these biological processes. On this occasion, however, session themes were based on concepts such as Plasticity, Stemness and Self-Renewal, Signalling Networks and Transcription Factors, Clinical Applications, and Systems Biology, in order to further stimulate cross-disciplinary interactions. Over 200 attendees from all over the world, including 31 early career researchers and 43 students, took part in the meeting.

As well as retaining areas of strength from previous TEMTIA meetings, in this year's meeting we introduced a half-day Early Career Researcher Forum preceding the main program. This enabled 12 young investigators to present their work back-to-back in front of an audience predominantly composed of other early career researchers leavened with experienced researchers. The standard was exceptional and feedback was positive about the opportunity that this offered younger researchers to participate in this international meeting. The meeting also incorporated a Circulating Tumour Cell Symposium which focussed on disseminating tumour cells and served to bridge the disciplines of the basic science of EMT and clinical oncology.

Two talks named in honour of the late Betty Hay were highlights of the meeting. Masatoshi Takeichi from the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, discoverer of the cadherin family of cell adhesion molecules, gave an enlightening talk on regulation of cell-cell adhesion in epithelia as the Betty Hay Oration. Claudia Palena, from NIH, received the Betty Hay Award for an outstanding young female scientist, within 5 years of starting her own laboratory, and spoke about her work on priming the immune system against EMT-driving transcription factors as a potential cancer therapy. Indeed, the interplay between the immune system and cells undergoing EMT was an emerging theme at the meeting, with several talks addressing the role of such interactions in pathological processes such as fibrosis. Other emerging trends included the positive impact that new methods of systems analysis can have in identifying novel regulators of EMT and the utility of mathematical models in identifying potential impacts of EMT on the emergent behaviour of tissues and in discriminating between stochastic and deterministic processes as they happen.

Sponsors of TEMTIA VII were the Company of Biologists, EMBO, NIH, Janssen, Bergenbio, Sysmex, Sanofi, American Association of Anatomists, Worldwide Cancer Research and Pharmaxis.

Guy Lyons, Centenary Institute, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, University of Sydney

Elastin Paper

Elastin is a crucial building block of the body. During a person’s life, the elastin in a blood vessel, for example, will go through an estimated two billion cycles of pulsation. But how the tissue achieved this flexibility remained a mystery. A paper published in Science Advances reports the discovery by an international group of researchers was a surprise, with the dynamics likened to the molecule doing a ballet dance.

Elastin's flexibility allows skin to stretch and twist, blood vessels to expand and relax with every heartbeat, and lungs to swell and contract with each breath. But exactly how this protein-based tissue achieves this flexibility remained an unsolved question – until now.

This material has a remarkable combination of flexibility and durability: elastin is one of the body’s most long-lasting component proteins, with an average survival time comparable to a human lifespan. During a person’s life, the elastin in a blood vessel, for example, will have gone through an estimated two billion cycles of pulsation.

A team of researchers at the University of Sydney, MIT in the United States and at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom has carried out an analysis that reveals the details of a hierarchical structure of scissor-shaped molecules that gives elastin its remarkable properties – read more through the paper and the University of Sydney website.

Transglutaminases in Human Disease Processes
Gordon Research Conference

Transglutaminases are a large family of structurally and functionally related proteins widely distributed in all living organisms. The predominant and classical function of these enzymes is as protein cross linkers, however as more is discovered about their biology additional roles ranging from non-enzymatic cell adhesion to GTPase activity complicate our understanding of their function in human biology.

There is a rapidly expanding literature describing dysregulation of these enzymes in multiple diseases and how this contributes to the pathogenesis of human diseases. Tissue fibrosis, cancer and metastasis, celiac disease, neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease, and skin diseases are just a few examples of where Transglutaminases have been implicated. The 4th Gordon Research Conference on "Transglutaminases in Human Disease Processes" will delve into many disease areas to try and establish where Transglutaminases are central to the disease process so we can better understand the interaction of function with the pathogenic roles being ascribed. Further the conference will address ways to restore normal enzyme function and explore the tools available to help us monitor enzyme levels and function as some approaches approach the clinic.

The meeting will discuss the latest cutting-edge research in the Transglutaminase biology, bringing together the most eminent researchers in Transglutaminase biology from across the world with disease experts. This conference aims to blend the expertise of seasoned scientists with young enthusiastic new comers to the field.

Each session will be aimed at a particular disease area with the discussion lead tasked with building a focused and themed program to maximize participation and output. The sessions will include:

  • Modulators, Structures and Substrates of Transglutaminases
  • The Function of Transglutaminases in Cardiovascular Disease
  • Transglutaminases in Tissue Remodelling, Fibrosis and Scarring
  • Do Transglutaminases Play a Role in Immunology and Rheumatology disorders?
  • What Role do Transglutaminases Play in Neurological disease?
  • Celiac Disease, Gastroenterology and Transglutaminases
  • Transglutaminases in Oncology
  • The Contribution of Transglutaminases to Connective Tissue Disorders

Each presentation within the session will have ample time for in depth discussion. There will also be 4 poster sessions providing a great opportunity for Post-Docs and graduate students to present their work under an informal relaxed atmosphere that fosters networking and idea sharing. For the first time there will be an additional session for the best abstracts from young investigators to be presented as short talks.

The 2016 Gordon Research Conference will bring together the world's leading researchers in the Transglutaminase field at PGA Catalunya Business and Convention Centre in Girona, Spain. This is a fantastic site located within the Catalunya golf course which is regarded as one of the best and most beautiful in Spain. Situated within easy reach of the beautiful beaches of the Costa Brava this is just 5km from Girona airport. The convention centre provides an excellent setting for formal lectures and informal out-of-session discussions, with excellent accommodation, dinning and recreational options.

To maximize access to the conference it is hoped to provide up to 20 bursaries for more junior researchers to attend. These can be applied for by emailing the conference chair.

Medical research funding in Australia - tough times, tight budgets & new opportunities

We all know that Australia is one of the toughest places in the world to secure funding for medical research. This is not because of any limitation in great ideas, novel science and world-leading researchers and scientists. Rather it's the “wealth” of these commodities amid the paucity of research dollars, that saw just 13.7% of Project Grants and 16.8% of ALL competitive grants funded by NHMRC in 2015. This despite ~37% of all submitted Project Grants (74% of those remaining after NFFC) receiving a score of 5 or better. No wonder there is despondency amongst the scientific research community in Australia.

So where’s the good news story in all of this?  Well ………

The NHMRC Medical Research Endowment Account (MREA) if not increasing beyond indexation is at least secure for the coming years after the most recent Federal Budget was handed down on May 3 2016 (see www.nhmrc.gov.au/media/nhmrc_updates/2016/201617-budget-outcome-nhmrc/ ). In the Australian research climate we call that a win!

Funding through the MREA

2015-16

2016-17

2017-18

2018-19

2019-20

$m

796.3

807.4

819.4

831.6

846.6

NHMRC is also undertaking a structural review of its Grant Program in light of concerns about increased competition, reduced funding success rates and the limitations this places on opportunities for early and mid-career researchers, and exploration of new areas of research. This overdue review of NHMRCs grants program will look at whether the suite of funding schemes can be streamlined, while continuing to support the best Australian research and researchers for the benefit of human health. It is anticipated that the overarching review will be completed by the end of 2016, so keep an eye out for announcements and opportunities in your area to go and hear from the CEO Professor Anne Kelso about this.

Then there’s the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) that was passed into law in 2015. In April this year an eight-member Board was appointed, under the chairmanship of Professor Ian Frazer, to advise the Government on how funds held in the MRFF should be allocated. The Board is currently undertaking a consultation process to develop the Australian Medical Research and Innovation Strategy and the Innovation Priorities. The Advisory Board will work with the community to shape the MRFF Strategy (which will be determined every five years) and identify the Priorities (defined every two years). The MRFF is the largest of its kind in the world and aims “to facilitate Australia maintaining a world class medical research sector, with access to cutting edge innovation and clinical breakthroughs in our hospitals — the underpinnings of the health system of the future”. Disbursements over the next four years are projected to be close to $800 million, and when the fund matures it is anticipated that annual disbursements of up to $1 billion will follow. The MRFF is a once in a lifetime opportunity to review ad shape medical research in Australia (more details can be found at https://consultations.health.gov.au/research-data-and-evaluation-division/mrff ).

Health is also beginning to invest in its own research future in a tangible way. In particular a recent initiative launched by NSW Health is directed towards ensuring that there are the positions, and prospects for career progression, for researchers who wish to devote their lives to the advancement of health reducing the likelihood and burden of disease and disability. The Office of Health and Medical Research (OHMR) of NSW Health has just announced its Early Career Support Fellowship scheme. This new scheme will support Fellows for 3 years and caters for researchers across the entire translational research spectrum. More details are at  http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/ohmr/Pages/emc.aspx .

Finally, there are opportunities outside the traditional funding pathways that we need to be ready and able to take advantage of.  One such example is partnering with industry to support academic projects with the potential to improve human health. Bayer has several open granting schemes including Grants4Targets, Grants4Apps, PartnerYourAntibodies and, Grants4Indications ( https://innovate.bayer.com/what-we-offer/ ). These schemes invite applications from academic research institutes as well as start-ups and companies.

Times and budgets for medical research are indeed tough, but there are glimmers of light in the darkness. We need to be more aware of every potential opportunity, and as our PM Malcolm Turnbull recently said when we see an opportunity we need to be “agile and smart enough to take advantage of it”.

Chris Little - christopher.little@sydney.edu.au