All posts by Operations

Curing cancer with radiation – safely

Prostate and other soft-tissue cancers are often treated with radioactive sources implanted or inserted into the body. But monitoring the dose is problematic.

Curing cancer with radiation – safely
Computer simulation of brachytherapy prostate treatment showing radioactive source trajectories through the pelvic region. Credit: Rick Franich
Medical physicists at Melbourne’s RMIT University are developing a technique to monitor the radiation dose more accurately.

In high dose rate brachytherapy, tumours are targeted by radioactive sources temporarily inserted into the body.

“Until now, it has not been possible to check at the time of delivery whether the doses received by the tumour and by surrounding healthy tissue matched the planned levels,” says Dr Rick Franich, Medical Radiation Physics group leader at the University’s Health Innovations Research Institute.
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Preparing for the worst

Fire fighters should identify what are potentially the worst-case events and prepare for them, even if they are extremely unlikely to occur, says Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre psychology researcher Claire Johnson.

Preparing for the worst
Fire fighters need to be prepared for the worst that can happen. Credit: Queensland Fire and Rescue Service

“A failure to consider worst-case scenario possibilities has been implicated in a number of high-profile investigations into Australian bushfire disasters,” says Claire, who submitted her PhD thesis on worst-case scenario planning to La Trobe University in Melbourne in March this year.

For instance, the inquiries following the Canberra bushfires in 2003 and the Wangary fires on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula in 2006 both suggested lack of considering the worst contributed to an underestimation of the threat posed.
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Australian farmers bring climate research to the paddock

Leading grain farmers are guiding climate researchers as part of Australia’s Climate Champion initiative.

Australian farmers bring climate research to the paddock
Farmer Simon Wallwork has worked with climate scientists on his farm. Credit: GRDC

They hope the results will help farmers to adapt to Australia’s increasingly challenging and variable climate.

Scientists supported by the Managing Climate Variability program asked the farmers about what they needed to know about climate in their areas—what forecasts and predictions would be most helpful and how they should be presented.
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Giving farmers more timely weather and climate forecasts

Seven days. Three months. We can now get accurate rainfall and temperature forecasts for these periods, but what if a farmer had access to quality outlooks that sat between the two—multi-week forecasts?

Giving farmers more timely weather and climate forecasts
Dr Andrew Watkins forecasts for farmers. Credit: Bureau of Meteorology

Multi-week forecasts would allow farmers to make better harvesting and sowing decisions before or after drought or flood events.

Australia’s Managing Climate Variability research and development program is working with the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO scientists to fill this gap.
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How a molecular assassin operates

The secrets of a molecular assassin could lead to more effective treatments for cancer and viral diseases, better therapy for autoimmune conditions, and a deeper understanding of the body’s defences enabling the development of more tightly focused immunosuppressive drugs.

How a molecular assassin operates
In this simulation, the perforin molecule (blue) punches a hole through the cell membrane (beige) providing access for toxic enzymes (red). Credit: Mike Kuiper
These are just some of the wide-ranging possibilities arising from research which has revealed the structure and function of the protein perforin, a front-line weapon in the body’s fight against rogue cells.

A pivotal role was played by 2006 Science Minister’s Life Scientist of the Year, molecular biologist Prof James Whisstock and his research team at Monash University. It was research fellow Dr Ruby Law who finally worked out how to grow crystals of perforin. And the team was then able to collaborate with Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies of the micro-crystallography beamline at the nearby Australian Synchrotron to reveal its complete molecular structure.
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Virtual management of the world’s oceans

New computer models are challenging the conventional wisdom in marine science.

Virtual management of the world’s oceans
Beth Fulton’s fisheries models are used all over the world. Credit: Istockphoto
These models have revealed for example that: large populations of jellyfish and squid indicate a marine ecosystem in trouble; not all fish populations increase when fishing is reduced—some species actually decline; and, sharks and tuna can use jellyfish as junk food to see them through lean periods.

The models were developed by the 2007 Science Minister’s Life Scientist of the Year, Dr Beth Fulton, a senior research scientist at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart.
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Saving our skins

Physicist Dr Amanda Barnard has been using supercomputers to find the balance between sun protection and potential toxicity in a new generation of sunscreens which employ nanoparticles.

Dr Amanda Barnard with one of her nanoparticle simulations Credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo
Dr Amanda Barnard with one of her nanoparticle simulations Credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo
The metal oxide nanoparticles which block solar radiation are so small they cannot be seen, so the sunscreen appears transparent. But if the particles are too small, they can produce toxic levels of free radicals.

Amanda, who heads CSIRO’s Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory, has been able to come up with a trade-off—the optimum size of particle to provide maximum UV protection for minimal toxicity while maintaining transparency—by modelling the relevant interactions on a supercomputer.
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The life and death of blood cells

Dr Benjamin Kile of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne has found why the blood cells responsible for clotting—platelets—have a short shelf life at the blood bank.

The life and death of blood cells
Benjamin Kile, winner of the 2010 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Credit: Bearcage Productions
There’s a molecular clock ticking away inside them that triggers their death. He’s also discovered a gene critical for the production of blood stem cells in our bone marrow that happens to be responsible for a range of cancers.

These major discoveries earned Ben the 2010 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year. Now he is trying to use them to extend the life of blood bank products, and get to the heart of some of the big questions in cancer.
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Seeing fish through rocks

Dr Kate Trinajstic has used synchrotron light and CT scanning to see through rock, in the process discovering how ancient fish developed teeth, jaws and even a womb. Her work is increasing our understanding of how life on Earth evolved.

Seeing fish through rocks
The winner of the 2010 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, Kate Trinajstic. Credit: Ron D’Raine
About 380 million years ago in what is now the Kimberley Ranges in Western Australia, a vast barrier reef formed. In what would have been the inter-reef basins, large numbers of fish were buried relatively intact. Protective limestone balls formed around them and preserved them. When these balls are treated with acetic acid, the main component of vinegar, the surrounding rock dissolves, leaving only fossilised fish bones.

But in the course of studying hundreds of these dissolving balls, Kate began to see what looked like muscle fibres between the bones. She was eventually able to convince her colleagues that irreplaceable soft tissue detail was being lost in the acid treatments.
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Back to the future for father of biotechnology

He’s back in the lab, working to convert the rich supply of stem cells found in the nose into specialised products to repair nerve damage or replace nerve cells lost in disorders such as hearing loss, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Back to the future for father of biotechnology
John Shine, winner of the 2010 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. Credit: Bearcage Productions
But that’s just the latest phase in the full and distinguished life of the 2010 winner of Australia’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, molecular biologist Prof John Shine.

In 2011, he is stepping down after more than 20 years as executive director of Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research which, under his guidance, has grown to a staff of more than 500, an annual budget of $50 million, and now boasts significant achievements in cancer, immunology, diabetes and obesity, osteoporosis and neuroscience.
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