Internationalising science together

IVF, heart research, and coral research gain from working together

Australian and Japanese science leaders understand the importance of internationalising their research—creating international science networks that are more than the sum of their parts. And the complementary strengths of the two countries result in greatly enhanced research when they work together.

President of The Systems Biology Institute Hiroakai Kitano with CEO of Monash IVF James Thiedeman (left), credit: EMBL
President of The Systems Biology Institute Hiroakai Kitano with CEO of Monash IVF James Thiedeman (left), credit: EMBL Australia

Science is becoming increasingly multidisciplinary, and the collaborations between Japan and Australia reflect this trend. One rapidly growing network is being driven by the Systems Biology Institute of Japan, together with Monash University and the Australian affiliate of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The natural partners joined forces in 2013 to create SBI Australia, the Japanese Institute’s first international affiliate. It was joined by SBI Singapore in 2014.

Giving birth to better IVF decisions

Australia has some of the best IVF success rates in the world but there’s still room for improvement. Success rates fall steeply in a woman’s late thirties yet this is now the average age for couples seeking help. Female age in particular affects the number and quality of eggs and embryos. SBI Australia is working with Monash IVF to improve the odds.

The team is examining the many factors which affect the growth of embryos and implantation. They’re using non-invasive microscopy developed at Monash, together with image analysis software invented by SBI, to watch the development of early living embryos. They hope that the project will lead to improvements in IVF processes as well as identifying the embryos most likely to succeed.

SBI Australia is also contributing to work on:

Understanding the different populations of cells that make the human heart, especially cells other than muscle cells, to improve understanding of the normal and ageing adult heart

Investigating coral communities to see how they will respond to warming oceans and bleaching—a critical issue for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

SBI Japan’s other projects include:

Modelling cancer to explore the effects of using multi-component drugs, and designing new drugs that could control and eventually kill cancer

Creating a precise model of a yeast cell as a first step in learning how we can model all cells using a systems approach

Creating internationally agreed languages and tools for systems biology modelling.

Modelling life’s complexity

The systems biology collaboration grew from Professor Hiroakai Kitano’s fascination with complex systems.

Modern biology has revealed the deep complexity of life. Nothing is simple –how an individual cell works, how a heart beats, how an organ works, let alone the complexity of a whole animal or of a brain. Looking at these parts in isolation, as modern biology does, can hinder our understanding of biological systems. That’s the challenge that led to the creation of the Systems Biology Institute.

Professor Kitano already had an international reputation in robotics and artificial intelligence, including the development of the ‘robotic dog’ AIBO, and the international RoboCup robot soccer competition.

While working on AIBO he started to think about the complexity of life. He realised that modern computing offered the opportunity to pull back from the singular focus of many life scientists and to start to model and simulate whole systems. It was the 1990s and the beginning of the genomics revolution. “We could now connect mathematical systems directly into molecular biology and biochemistry, and I saw the opportunity there.” His early work led to a Nature paper on the fundamental mechanisms of ageing. And systems biology—the science of looking at a whole system—was born.

“The Systems Biology Institute started in Japan. But we would like access to resources and expertise we don’t have in Japan. If we were studying a cell or a cancer, we would be just fine in Japan. But [in Australia] we have resources like the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences and coral and the Great Barrier Reef. And we have the tradition of Monash IVF. Access to IVF clinics is something people want, and Monash IVF is keen to collaborate with us. So Australia is a natural place to establish our first international associate.”

– Hiroakai Kitano speaking at the launch of SBI Australia