Advancing health and medicine

Scientists in our Muscle Research Laboratory, George Stephenson and Graham Lamb, helped rewrite a significant chapter in physiology.

The previously held belief that acidity, through a build up of lactic acid, was a major cause of muscle fatigue. Subsequent research revealed that lactate could even have a beneficial effect, to help muscles perform better.

Our Neuroimmunology Laboratory led by Claude Bernard was among the first in the world to track the progress of Multiple Sclerosis and its association with nerve damage in an experimental animal model of the disease. The result was a series of discoveries about the molecules responsible for the failure of the central nervous system to regenerate in spinal cord injury and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Malaria researchers – Robin Anders, Mick Foley and Leann Tilley – were among a handful of groups globally whose work attracted support from the Gates Foundation to study the properties of antigens in malaria parasites in the quest for new diagnostic reagents to combat a disease that still kills 600 million people in Africa, mainly children.

Research by Nick Hoogenraad – a leading figure in the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science – has for more than three decades probed mitochondria, the ‘power house’ of our cells, in a quest to fight disease.

With Amelia Johnston, his group developed and patented monoclonal antibodies to block a muscle-wasting disease, cachexia, that kills up to one third of all cancer patients. These chemicals are now being developed for clinical trials with the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute.  Professor Hoogenraad is also one of a select group of researchers whose life and work have been recorded on film by the Australian Academy of Science.

Culminating a decade of research, La Trobe scientists discovered how a new drug that inhibits the normal process of cell death, or apoptosis, kills cancer cells. Headed by David Vaux and John Silke, the study relates to next generation cancer treatments.  Their team discovered that the drug targets a specific cell death inhibitor protein and was able to cure laboratory mice bearing human cancers cells.

La Trobe also co-pioneered the use of modified shark antibodies – much smaller, chemically more robust and biologically more stable than conventional antibodies – to develop new and better therapies against malaria, cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Led by molecular biologist Mick Foley and a CSIRO colleague, the project is building the world’s first ‘test tube library’ of these special disease-targeting antibodies.

Paul Fisher and his microbiology laboratory have given us new insight into mechanisms that cause mitochondrial diseases – namely that they may result from a signaling disorder in the cells, rather than energy insufficiency as previously thought. This may result in new treatments for mitochondrial diseases from heart, liver and kidney problems to neurological disorders.

We have also helped critical early treatment for children with autism, a condition that blights many lives, as well as the search for biological markers for this disorder. These advances have involved psychologist Cheryl Dissanayake, geneticist Danuta Loesch, and statisticians Richard Huggins and Dr Quang Bui. This has led to the highly effective work being carried out today by the University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre.

Related research into fragile X syndrome, the most common cause of inherited severe developmental delay in children, also helped identify a new neurological disorder in older men, called FXTAS.