Discoveries inspired
by life

Institute In Focus: Institute for Molecular Bioscience

The natural world is inspiring researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) to develop treatments for disease and solutions for agricultural and environmental issues.

IMB researcher Marija Kojic.

Whether it’s developing pain drugs from cone snail venom or biofuels from algae, or eradicating cane toads using their own toxins, IMB scientists are tapping into the world’s vast resources to create better health and improved products and processes for industry and the environment.

IMB Director Professor Brandon Wainwright says the problems facing the world today are complex and multifaceted.

“Complex problems require multidisciplinary teams, different ways of thinking and collaborations with other researchers, industry and clinicians,” he says.

“At IMB, we are a true life sciences institute whose scope ranges beyond the medical, meaning we can follow through on research whose application lies in other areas, such as our algal biofuel program.”

Professor Brandon Wainwright

Some of the problems IMB researchers are tackling include chronic pain, superbugs, inflammation and rare diseases.

Chronic pain affects one in five Australians, affecting their relationships and ability to work, while inflammation underlies many major diseases with devastating impacts, such as diabetes and obesity, arthritis, stroke, cancer and liver disease.

Superbugs are a serious and growing threat that, if left unchecked, could take us back to an era when over half of all deaths were from bacterial infection. And while rare diseases may be uncommon individually, collectively one in 12 Australians suffer from one.

The quality of IMB research in these and other areas has been recognised independently.

The institute regularly achieves double and even triple the national average success rate on competitive grants, which are reviewed and awarded by scientific peers from across the country.

The Nature Publishing Index, a ranking of the affiliations of high-quality research articles, puts IMB at 13th in the nation if it were a standalone institute, ahead of many entire universities and all other Australian research institutes.

But IMB’s focus is not just on excellent research. Professor Wainwright says innovation is rightly viewed by governments around the world as critical to economic progress and quality of life.

“In 2016, we are reinforcing our commitment to translational and commercial research so discoveries with the potential to benefit patients, industry and the community will be encouraged and supported as early as possible in their development to ensure their application and use.”

Find out more

For more information about the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, visit imb.uq.edu.au or call +61 7 3346 2134.

Green solution for affordable medicine

Institute for Molecular Bioscience Professor David Craik.

Work being undertaken at a laboratory at Brisbane’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) could change the way people around the world take medicine.

Tablets or injections are common ways of dispensing pharmaceutical treatments, but IMB’s Professor David Craik is hoping to transform sunflower seeds, tea leaves and even potato chips into the drug delivery packages of the future.

“Our goal is to produce plants capable of growing pharmaceuticals, creating a new generation of affordable, accessible drugs to treat a range of conditions including cancer, pain and obesity,” says Professor Craik.

“Plant-grown medicines would be particularly impactful for people in the developing world.

“Current pharmaceuticals can be out of reach for many in developing countries due to their high price and the lack of infrastructure available to transport and store specialised drugs, such as those that require refrigeration.

“Pharmaceuticals contained in seeds, leaves or food would be much more affordable and the infrastructure to transport, for example plant seeds, is much simpler and already in place even in remote corners of the world.

“These plants could also be provided to people directly, opening up the possibility of patients growing medicine to treat themselves in their own backyards.”

Professor David Craik

Professor Craik and his team, in collaboration with Professor Marilyn Anderson AO of La Trobe University in Melbourne, are turning their vision of plants as ‘biofactories’ to produce pharmaceuticals into reality through clever chemistry.

Plant-grown drugs are based on molecules called cyclotides, circular proteins that plants naturally produce.

Their circular shape means cyclotides are stable and harder for digestive enzymes to break down.

“Cyclotides bridge the gap between traditional oral drugs such as common painkillers, which are expensive but non-specific in their function, and protein-based drugs such as insulin, which are very specific but expensive and require injection,” Professor Craik explains.

The cyclotide drugs the IMB team are developing are specific, which means they are less likely to cause side effects, and can be taken orally.

The team is focusing on optimising a pain relief drug already in development in Arabidopsis plants, producing anti-obesity peptides in potatoes, and producing anti-cancer peptides in sunflower and soybean.

The research has already attracted the support of the Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundations and IMB is currently seeking industry partners for this research.

Find out more

To learn more about supporting this research through clinical trials, contact Maureen O’Shea at m.oshea@uq.edu.au
or +61 7 3346 2185.

Microalgae shines light on solar fuels

Institute for Molecular Bioscience Professor Ben Hankamer.

For decades, governments and scientists have searched for a sustainable solution to fossil fuels.

Now, it appears the answer could come from tiny green algae, growing naturally in our waterways for billions
of years.

A collaboration between UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), global engineering company Kellogg Brown and Root Pty Ltd (KBR) and renewable energy company Muradel Pty Ltd is focusing on developing renewable solar fuels, like microalgae, that are carbon dioxide (CO2)-neutral and reduce competition for arable land and fresh water.

IMB Professor Ben Hankamer says the research partnership has the potential to help society transition from a finite fossil fuel resource to a sustainable solar energy supply.

“By 2050, the human population is forecast to expand to nine billion people, requiring 50 per cent more fuel, 70 per cent more food, and 50 per cent more fresh water."

Professor Ben Hankamer

“At the same time, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data shows that we must reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80 per cent to limit the rise in average global temperature to two degrees Celsius, the limit agreed to at the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change.

“Achieving this reduction necessitates the rapid development of clean fuel technologies.”

Microalgae have evolved over three billion years to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy for its own growth – or for producing fuels, foods and other high-value products.

Microalgae can be grown in saline or waste water and agricultural run-off, while production systems can be located on non-arable land, reducing competition with food production and water resources.

Professor Hankamer says the next challenge is to make solar fuels cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

“For these products to be cost-effective, we need to better capture and distribute sunlight through these systems.

“We are studying microalgae cell lines to understand the photosynthetic machinery and increase the efficiency of sunlight conversion to biomass.

“Other researchers have demonstrated that the crude oil yield from microalgae can be increased, and there is plenty of potential for further optimisation.”

Microalgae has the potential to deliver much more than renewable fuels.

Microalgae biotechnologies can also power the production of products such as dengue virus vaccines, antibiotics, and animal and aquaculture feeds.

“Having multiple markets for a range of algae products supports the refinement and cost reduction of microalgae systems, and ultimately helps to bring solar fuels closer to price parity with crude oil,” says Professor Hankamer.