The link between a specific gene and brain cell ageing may reveal valuable lessons for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, a Sydney scientist has found.

Yee Lian Chew, a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney, found that when levels of the TAU gene in a worm model were either too low or too high, the brain cells aged faster and the animals lived for a shorter period.

“Diseases of the aging brain are poorly understood,” says Yee Lian. “Our finding provides exciting new information on how the brain ages, and also suggests that we should target this gene in future treatments for dementia patients.”

The human TAU gene has been implicated in brain aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Yee Lian says worms are an exceptional way to study brain ageing as their transparent nature allow her to easily examine the changes that emerge in older brain cells and to study how fast the brain ages.

“Humans are certainly more complex than worms, but at a molecular level there are many striking similarities,” she says. “The lack of complexity is also an advantage – worms have 302 brain cells whereas humans have billions. It is much simpler to study brain aging in an animal where individual cells can be easily observed.”

NSW State Finalist: Yee Lian Chew, The University of Sydney

Lucie Rankin

The discovery of a gene’s essential role in generating rare intestinal immune cells may hold hope for those with celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome, say Melbourne scientists.

Lucille Rankin and a team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute discovered that the gene, T-bet, is important for the production of innate lymphoid cells, (ILCs) and is stimulated by the proteins from leafy greens, raising questions about the effect of food on our genes and immune system.

“Discovery of the T-bet molecule that make these immune cells paves the way for understanding how we might manipulate these cells and repair the communication breakdown that occurs in diseases such as IBS,” says Lucille, who did the research as part of her PhD.

ILCs help to promote good bacteria and the healing of small abrasions on the intestinal wall. Leafy green vegetables previously have been shown to have an important role in the production of ILCs. Lucille and her team discovered that the T-best molecule may be a possible pathway for this action.

The intestine makes up 70 per cent of our immune system and it is home to trillions of good bacteria that keep us healthy.  Immune cells in the intestine must be clever enough to tell the difference between good, health-promoting bacteria, harmless food particles and nasty disease-causing bacteria, which it must destroy.

When the communication system in the intestine breaks down, immune cells get confused and can begin to attack good bacteria and the intestinal lining, which results in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colitis.  However, we still don’t know exactly how this happens and what causes such debilitating ailments.

Victoria State Finalist: Lucie Rankin, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

Using genes to counter rust

13 February 2014

in 2013


A newly discovered gene is set to save your lager by reducing the fungicides that control a disease in barley crops, researchers say.

Dr Lee Hickey, of The University of Queensland, led a research project that identified a gene responsible for barley plant resistant to rust, a blight estimated to cause $21 million worth of losses each year in Australia.

“We developed a diagnostic DNA marker for the gene, called Rph20, which is now used by barley breeders around the world,” says Lee, a Research Fellow at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, University of Queensland.

“The beauty of this gene is that it is effective against all strains of the disease,” he says.

Leaf rust is a disease that affects barley crops worldwide, caused by a fungus that robs plants of nutrients required to produce grain. The leaves become covered with brown powdery spores, creating the appearance of rust.

Queensland farmers were victim to an outbreak of leaf rust in 2010. Many had to apply fungicides up to four times to save their crops.

In Australia, most barley grain is used to produce beer or to feed cattle. The grain is a critical food source in North African countries like Morocco and Ethiopia.

The research project brought together researchers from The University of Sydney, Queensland’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the National Agricultural Research Institute in Uruguay, South America.

Queensland State Finalist: Lee Hickey, University of Queensland

Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a way to deliver drugs which can specifically shut down cancer-causing genes in tumour cells while sparing normal healthy tissues.

Sherry Wu in the lab. Credit: Sherry Wu

Sherry Wu in the lab. Credit: Sherry Wu

They are currently looking at cervical cancer. While cervical cancer vaccines – co-developed by Professor Ian Frazer at UQ – are reducing the chances of infection with the virus that causes the cancer, many thousands of women worldwide are likely to contract cervical cancer in the next few decades.

Fresh Scientist Ms Sherry Wu hopes the new technique, which involves the use of coatings rich in fats, will hasten the application of RNA interference or gene-silencing, a technology which can inactivate individual genes. Using this technology, she and her colleagues observed a 70% reduction in tumour size in a cervical cancer mouse model. [click to continue…]

It may be possible to halt cancer in its tracks by blocking a gene critical to building tumour supply lines, according to new research carried out at the University of Queensland.

Most tumours need a blood supply to grow.

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience have found that when new blood vessels form – in developing embryos and in tumours – a gene, known as Sox18, switches on for just 48 hours.

“In adult mice, we have found that interfering with this gene reduces tumour growth by up to 80 percent,” says postdoctoral scientist Dr Neville Young. “A surprisingly large number of people carry microscopic tumours inside their bodies but these cells never develop into disease.

“One of the reasons these cancerous cells do not rage out of control is that they never establish a blood supply to feed them. Those unlucky enough to develop malignant tumours often do so when cancerous cells co-opt the body’s own blood supply.”

Sox18 has an important role to play in helping specialised cells travel to the right position and then form the tubes needed for blood flow.

Dr Young says that targeting blood vessels was not a new concept in the fight against cancer, but that one of the big problems was the side effects of current treatments.

“The novel thing about targeting Sox18 is that it is only turned on in new blood vessels feeding the growing tumour,” he says. “It does not seem to affect any other blood vessels in the body. By attacking only Sox18 we might be able to stop these new vessels forming while leaving the rest of the blood supply alone.”

The next step is to test whether researchers can manufacture a drug for humans that can mimic the observed effects in mice. They also need to design a delivery system to get the drug to the growing blood vessel cells to switch Sox18 off.

The early stages of this research are already underway with preliminary results expected within two years. This is dependent on ongoing funding for this research.

Neville is one of 13 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

The world’s fastest growing abalone—the tropical donkey’s ear abalone, Haliotis asinina—can be bred to grow rapidly and reliably for aquaculture, Queensland biologists have found. And that makes it potentially a high value alternative crop for struggling prawn farmers. [click to continue…]

Researchers at Prince Henry’s Institute in Melbourne have discovered how an extra copy of a gene halts the process of becoming a boy.

[click to continue…]

Edwina Sutton and colleagues at the University of Adelaide have been busily turning female mice into males.

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Are cancer cells confused?

30 August 2004

in 2004

Scientists have recently discovered that the gene EDD is implicated in the development of breast and ovarian cancer. And like the horse, this gene is into talking.

“Cancer arises from defects in cell growth and division. We are now beginning to realise that defective cellular communication can also lead to cancer,” says Professor Rob Sutherland, Director of the Cancer Research Program at Garvan Institute.

Cells “talk” to each other in the developing embryo to coordinate themselves into higher structures like organs and blood vessels. Vigilant communication and coordination between cells is essential throughout life to maintain these structures.

Part of EDD’s job is to tell cells where to go. Garvan scientists have shown that mice without EDD have the cells to make blood vessels but they are unable to coordinate their development. Without EDD cells become confused.

Cancer is often caused by cells producing too many copies of key cancer genes. Work at Garvan has demonstrated that excess copies of the EDD gene are present in 73% of one aggressive type of ovarian cancer and that excessive amounts of the EDD protein are found in 63% of breast cancers and 39% of ovarian cancers. Garvan research aims to define whether too much EDD is crucial to the development of these cancers.

“We now anticipate that this research will have practical applications,” says Garvan Scientist Jennifer Clancy.

Jennifer is one of 15 early-career scientists presenting their work to the media as part of the national Fresh Science competition.

“We are currently looking at whether excess levels of EDD can help us predict the behaviour of a cancer. This could assist doctors in deciding how best to treat future cancer patients.”

Key questions of how altered levels of EDD lead to cellular confusion, and whether this leads to cancer, are current areas of research at Garvan.

“We expect that future work will yield more clues to the function of this fascinating gene and the role of communication in the development of cancer,” says Jennifer Clancy, “More importantly, one day this research may provide better treatment options to future cancer patients.”

When the EDD gene is mutated in fruit flies, it causes fly ‘cancer’    Cells without the EDD gene cannot coordinate the formation of blood vessels. 
Cells without EDD do not communicate well with adjacent cells    The amount of EDD protein produced in breast and ovarian cancer tissue 

Two plant genes have been identified that could lead to new crop varieties resistant to fungal diseases, meaning increased productivity for farmers and improved quality and cheaper costs for consumers.

These two genes can help plants boost their own immunity to disease, resulting in less need for chemical sprays, improved produce quality and increased shelf life for crop products.

Plant diseases are a major problem for growers, especially in northern Australia where fungal disease wipes out millions of dollars of production from grain and forage crops each year.

“Although it may seem quiet on the outside, a molecular war is being waged inside plants under attack from fungal invaders,” said University of Queensland PhD student, Ken McGrath.

Ken was one of 16 students selected to take part in the 2004 Fresh Science Awards held recently in Melbourne, where he presented his research to university students and the general public.

“Plants themselves are not defenceless against disease – inside every cell is an array of defensive weapons that the plant can produce to prevent the intruder from taking over,” Ken said.

As part of his research with the CRC for Tropical Plant Protection, Ken is looking to see how the two genes he has identified can be used to boost a plant’s own natural defences against fungal attacks.

“Knowledge of how both of these genes work allows us to develop plants that are able to defend themselves against a fungal attack more effectively,” he said.

“Plants that have their troops always at their post are potentially resistant to a range of fungal diseases, because they have a head start on the invader.”

This study has developed plants with higher levels of their own natural defences in place, ready to resist fungal disease.

These plants are currently being examined to see if an activated defence system translates into increased resistance against a number of agriculturally important fungal diseases that affect valuable crops like bananas, cotton, wheat and barley.

 If successful, this research will result in cheaper and better quality produce that has been treated with fewer chemicals and is more resistant to spoilage.

 “By putting the balance of power back with the plants, we can help them win their battle against their fungal foes.”

Arabidopsis thaliana Ken isolating diseased cells Ken preparing samples  

Ken with his resistant plants

Using a UV illuminator to visualise genes

Researchers have shown how mutations in a key gene cause a rare but devastating inherited autoimmune disease – APS-1. They’ve revealed fundamental workings of our immune system – and how our bodies teach our defence systems not to engage in friendly fire. [click to continue…]

Researchers at the Howard Florey Institute have discovered a new gene in the lining of arteries that makes them thicken or crack causing reduced blood flow which may lead to heart attacks, stroke or impotence. [click to continue…]

In break-through research, researchers have identified genes in mice that appear to be important in the spread of breast cancer to bones.

Australian women have a one in eleven life-time risk of developing breast cancer. For many women, early diagnosis and treatment provides a complete cure. However, if the tumour spreads, the disease is hard to control and the treatment options are limited. [click to continue…]

Queensland researchers have discovered new genes that are important in producing the ‘slime’ that protects the human colon from cancer-causing agents.

Currently about one in 23 Australians are likely to develop colorectal cancer, a disease that attacks the lining of the colon and rectum at the end of the human digestive system. [click to continue…]

A  Melbourne scientist has discovered the gene that causes de Morsier syndrome, a severe disorder in which babies are born with underdeveloped brains, eyes and pituitary glands.  

Dr. Paul Thomas from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute has shown that children with this syndrome have a critical change in the Hesx1 gene which causes a malfunction during brain formation.  [click to continue…]

Genes & Epilepsy: How do they “fit”? – Robyn Wallace

Robyn has identified the first gene known to cause febrile seziures. This is a specific form of epilepsy that affects young children. [click to continue…]