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


Placental stem cells may hold the key to early prevention and the possibility of a cure for cerebral palsy, Melbourne scientists have found

Dr Tamara Yawno and her colleagues from Monash Institute of Medical Research have shown that stem cells derived from discarded placentas reduced brain injury in sheep with cerebral palsy (CP).

“The project’s initial positive outcomes are a vital first step in our understanding of whether stem cells track to the injured brain, reduce the fetal stress and inflammatory response to injury, and whether they also take on the properties of other brain cells at the site of injury,” Tamara says.

“Our group has been particularly interested in the use of placental stem cells because they are easily accessible, obtained from the discarded human placenta, and therefore do not have the limitations of adult and embryonic stem cells,” she says.

Brain damage that leads to cerebral palsy mainly occurs before birth. However, interventions are limited to physical therapies, which are used to reduce disabilities associated with CP.  Many parents with CP children are looking overseas for stem cell therapy.

“Stem cells offer the potential for great therapeutic benefit for a number of debilitating human conditions,” Tamara says.

She says the next step is to understand the cell’s mechanisms of action with a view to progressing to clinical trials.

Victoria State Finalist: Tamara Yawno, Monash Institute of Medical Research