Filtering the blood to keep cancer in check

A new diagnostic system used to detect cancer cells in small blood samples could next be turned towards filtering a patient’s entire system to remove those dangerous cells – like a dialysis machine for cancer – says an Australian researcher who helped develop the system.

The technique was developed for cancer diagnosis, and is capable of detecting (and removing) a tiny handful of cancer-spreading cells from amongst the billions of healthy cells in a small blood sample.

The revolutionary system, which works to diagnose cancer at a tenth of the cost of competing technologies, is now in clinical trials in the US, UK, Singapore and Australia, and is in the process of being commercialised by Clearbridge BioMedics PteLtd in Singapore.

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Looking for dark matter in a gold mine

Deep underground in rural Victoria, Matteo Volpi is searching for evidence of the cosmic glue that holds the Universe together: dark matter.

Matteo is taking the initial measurements for the study at Stawell Gold Mine where an international team is set to construct a $3.5 million laboratory more than a kilometre underground.

Matteo Volpi is looking for dark matter in the Stawell Gold Mine. Credit: Michael Slezak
Matteo Volpi is looking for dark matter in the Stawell Gold Mine. Credit: Michael Slezak

Understanding dark matter is regarded as one of the most important questions of modern particle physics.

“If we nail it, it’s a Nobel Prize– winning experiment,” says the project leader Elisabetta Barberio, a University of Melbourne physicist and chief investigator of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale (CoEPP).

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Which prostate cancers can be left alone?

Only 10 per cent of prostate cancers are lethal, but which ones? Australian researchers have tracked the mutations that drive the cancer to spread through the body, and eventually become lethal.

Bioinformaticians can use Circos plots to visualise how cancer genomes differ from healthy ones. Credit: Peter Casamento
Bioinformaticians can use Circos plots to visualise how cancer genomes differ from healthy ones. Credit: Peter Casamento

The research shows they can be detected in the original tumour and even in blood samples. Testing the DNA of prostate cancer cells may help clinicians in the future identify which cancers need to be urgently removed and which ones might simply be monitored.

“Some advanced cancer cells evolve the ability to break away from their original location, travel through the bloodstream and create secondary tumours in another part of the body,” explains Clare Sloggett, Bioinformatician and Research Fellow at the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI). “Cells in this state of metastasis are the most deadly.”

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Shared data reveals radio bursts, and a lunch break

In May 2014, a team led by PhD candidate Emily Petroff from Swinburne University was the first to see ‘fast radio bursts’ (FRBs) live, using the Parkes radio telescope in central New South Wales. The search was triggered by signals found in recycled data. They also discovered that someone was opening the kitchen microwave.

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Science collaboration improves health

Dr Ian Frazer Administers the first Australian Gardasil Vaccination. Credit: University of Queensland
Dr Ian Frazer Administers the first Australian Gardasil Vaccination. Credit: University of Queensland

Australia’s impact on world health has been profound: from devices helping deaf children hear, to cancer-preventing vaccines and even the development of penicillin. But there is much more to come. Australians are working, often with researchers from the United States, on hundreds of projects including medical spin-outs from genome research, HIV vaccines, the use of phones to diagnose mental illnesses, and a suite of drugs to prevent and treat obesity and diabetes.

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Searching the southern sky, and unchaining the internet

Gemini North. Credit: Gemini
Gemini North. Credit: Gemini

Through their unique view of the southern sky, Australian researchers are unraveling the secrets of the cosmos—and they’re doing it with a huge helping hand from the US. In return, Australian astronomer engineers have helped change the world via discoveries that have unchained notebook computers, made flight safer, improved CT scans, and delivered clearer sound. Now, Australia and the US are working together to design the next generation of telescopes: the Giant Magellan optical telescope to be constructed in Chile; the gravitational observatories looking for echoes from the Big Bang; and what will be the world’s largest radio telescope— the Square Kilometre Array.

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The Australian science and technology system

Opal Research Reactor. Credit: ANSTO
Opal Research Reactor. Credit: ANSTO

With 22.5 million people, Australia has only about one-fourteenth the population of the US. However, Australia is as big in land mass as the 48 contiguous US states and as geographically diverse. Publicly funded science is targeted at many of the same strategic challenges as in the US—particularly, health and medical research, marine science, climate change, agriculture, energy, resources and defense.

National science agencies

RV Southern Surveyor. Credit: CSIRO
RV Southern Surveyor. Credit: CSIRO

Helping drive solutions to these challenges in Australia is the national research body known as CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). One of the world’s biggest government research agencies, it has an annual budget of close to AU$1.4 billion (2010¬11), of which the Government provides about half directly. There is a separate body devoted to defense matters, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), which receives a budget appropriation of about AU$440 million. Other Government agencies include the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, ANSTO (AU$369 million in 2010-11), the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) based near Townsville in north Queensland (AU$66.2 million in 2010¬11), Geoscience Australia (AU$156 million in 2010-11) and the Bureau of Meteorology (AU$345.3 million in 2010-11).

Funding bodies

In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC) are the two most significant agencies that administer competitive research grants on behalf of the government. NHMRC, which focuses on health and medical research, had a 2010-2011 budget allocation of nearly AU$792 million. The Australian Research Council (ARC), a general research granting agency, had a 2010-2011 budget allocation of more than AU$700 million.

There are many scholarship programs available to researchers in Australia. One of the best known and most distinguished is the educational exchange program of Fulbright scholarships. These are an important mechanism for generating collaboration between Australian and US scientists.

The Australian component for 2011 has been boosted with the announcement of up to 15 ‘clean tech’ Fulbright scholarships for those interested in renewable energy and climate science research.

About two-thirds of the Australian Government’s science and technology budget is administered by the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio. The other third is administered by other government portfolios: the DSTO, for instance, is managed by the Department of Defence; and the NHMRC by the Department of Health and Ageing.

In addition, each of the eight state and territory governments has its own administration dealing with science and technology, focused on areas of specific interest. Traditionally, because of their constitutional responsibilities, all states have been interested in public health, education, and agriculture. But some states, such as Victoria and Queensland, have made research and development (R&D) itself a specific economic focus, and have put significant funding into developing research infrastructure.

Universities

Australian Synchrotron.
Australian Synchrotron.

Research is a focus at all of Australia’s 41 universities, only two of which are private. About twice as much is spent on R&D by Australia’s universities and medical research institutes as is spent directly by federal government science agencies. Much of the sector’s research funding is provided in the form of competitive grants and block grants designed to support the indirect costs of research. In total, the Australian Government provides about AU$2.5 billion to universities to support their research and research training activities, and this is complemented by research funding from the private sector, non-profit organizations and state governments.

While there is not a strong history of philanthropy or endowments in Australia, universities are increasingly undertaking their own fund-raising, and tapping into new sources of non-government funding.

Medical research institutes

Australia has about 40 independent medical research institutes in addition to its universities and hospitals. As well as tapping into philanthropic money, and being eligible for competitive grants, these institutes are supported directly by about AU$650 million a year from the Australian Government towards infrastructure, and more from the state and territory governments.

Business investment in research and development

While in the US, business has accounted consistently for about 70 per cent of total R&D expenditure, the role of private enterprise in research in Australia historically has been limited. That picture is now changing: the share of national R&D financed by business over the past 25 years has risen from 30 per cent to about 60 per cent in 2008-09. This has been supported by a range of government programs, including an R&D tax concession now worth around AU$1.6 billion a year. The Australian Government is involved strongly with particular agricultural industries in 15 Rural R&D Corporations. These corporations are financed through industry levies matched dollar for dollar by the Australian Government.

Cooperative research centres

CSIRO Solar Tower. Credit: CSIRO
CSIRO Solar Tower. Credit: CSIRO

Making a strong contribution in terms of practical research is the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) Program. The program supports end user driven research collaborations to address clearly articulated, major challenges facing Australia, many of which are global. CRC activities include research, utilization and commercialization, education and engagement with small and medium enterprises.

There are 42 active CRCs that operate across four broad industry categories: agriculture, forestry and fishing (11 CRCs), manufacturing (5), mining (4) and services (22). Since 1991, the Australian Government has committed more than AU$3.4 billion in CRC Program funding. Participants in CRCs have committed a further AU$11 billion in cash and in-kind contributions.

Academies

Two national academies are associated with science and technology in Australia—the Australian Academy of Science, based in the nation’s capital, Canberra, and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in Melbourne, Victoria. Both have been involved heavily in promoting collaboration with colleagues outside Australia through the Australian Government’s International Science Linkages Program.

This is an part of a series of eight factsheets exploring US-Australian collaboration and outlining some of the ways that Australian science is contributing to America’s society and economy. You can download all of the factsheets as one PDF here.

  1. Overview: Innovation today means jobs and prosperity tomorrow. (Download PDF)
  2. Delivering sustainable agriculture and biosecurity. (Download PDF)
  3. Slivers of sun: clean energy and smarter mining. (Download PDF)
  4. Science collaboration improves health. (Download PDF)
  5. Understanding and responding to changing climate. (Download PDF)
  6. Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action. (Download PDF)
  7. Searching the southern sky, and unchaining the internet. (Download PDF)
  8. The Australian science and technology system. (Download PDF)

Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action

US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz which will be protected by Nulka Credit: U.S. Navy/James Mitchell
US Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz which will be protected by Nulka Credit: U.S. Navy/James Mitchell

Blink and you’ll certainly miss it. Australian and US defense scientists have conducted two of 10 test flights of rockets that use revolutionary scramjet propulsion at the Woomera Test Range in South Australia. The rockets travel at hypersonic speeds of more than Mach 5—that’s well over 3,000 miles per hour. More conventionally, an Australian-designed missile that masquerades as a ship has been selected to protect US aircraft carriers. But it’s not just rocket science where Australian and US collaborations have raced ahead. Artificial intelligence research could see manned and unmanned aircraft fly in the same airspace. Australian materials have been incorporated into the latest American aircraft. And quantum computers could soon be solving the knottiest of problems, now that Australian scientists have pointed the way to building them.

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Understanding and responding to changing climate

ANU’s Chris Fulton measuring reef fish at Lizard Island. Credit: Neal Cantin
ANU’s Chris Fulton measuring reef fish at Lizard Island. Credit: Neal Cantin

From the poles to the tropics, researchers from Australia and the US are working together to watch and understand our changing natural world. America’s constellation of earth observation satellites plays a critical role in monitoring Australia’s changing climate and land use. During bushfire, flood and cyclone emergencies the information they provide is critical to Australia’s emergency response. The air sampled at remote Cape Grim on Tasmania’s northwest coast and Australia’s ice core research are two examples of Australia’s contribution to NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) efforts to understand and predict the planet’s changing climate. Australia and the US both encompass a huge range of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Australia’s experiences in dealing with fire, drought and natural disasters are helping to give US researchers a different perspective on some of the challenges of America’s changing climate and environment.

Remote sensing in natural disasters

Emergency response managers are able to track the course of natural disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes and storms and plan with increased accuracy thanks to software developed by Associate Professor Linlin Ge and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The software allows data from interferometric synthesis aperture radar (INSAR) satellites to be pulled together rapidly and automatically to generate high-resolution maps. The maps reveal ground movements, and predict likely damage to vital infrastructure such as buildings, roads, railways and bridges.

The team’s work has led to the establishment of an international network of national remote sensing agencies that collaborate in times of emergency management. The network began spontaneously in 2008 when Associate Professor Ge and his team, confronted by the enormity of the Sichuan earthquake in China, helped local rescue workers by providing satellite images constructed from Japanese data.

Cape Grim’s clean air—monitoring global climate change

Australia provides baseline climate data to the rest of the world through its monitoring station at Cape Grim at the extreme northwest tip of Tasmania. As well as monitoring carbon dioxide, methane and a range of atmospheric trace gases, scientists at Cape Grim measure concentrations of natural and pollutant particles. Because of Cape Grim’s remoteness from population centers (Argentina is the only landmass west of the Cape), the collected data represents as close as scientists can measure to a global average. The monitoring station is managed jointly by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.

Keeping a weather eye out

Antarctic research and resupply Ship Aurora Australis. Credit: Natalia Galin
Antarctic research and resupply Ship Aurora Australis. Credit: Natalia Galin

In addition, CSIRO has made a long-term contribution to improved climate prediction through monitoring the Southern Ocean since 1994. The world’s largest current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, flows around the Southern Ocean connecting the three major ocean basins—Pacific, Indian and Atlantic—redistributing heat, affecting temperature and rainfall, and making a huge impact on the world’s climate.

Through agreements with NOAA, NASA, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, a ground station in Hobart in the southern island state of Tasmania, operated by the Australian Centre for Remote Sensing, has been downloading climate-relevant data from passing US polar orbit satellites.

One thousand new species found—understanding coral reefs

In the tropics, researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) are working with counterparts in the US to discover and document life on coral reefs and monitor the impact of climate change. AIMS, NOAA and the Smithsonian Institution lead the three nodes of CReefs, the coral reef component of the Census of Marine Life. CReefs aims to discover and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in coral reef ecosystems, and improve access to and unify this information. Already, more than 1,000 previously undocumented species have been discovered on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, along the east coast, and Ningaloo Reef, off the west coast, as part of the project.

Fixing the plumbing—water conservation

Along with susceptibility to forest fires, large areas of Australia and the US also are prone to drought and water shortages and the two countries have long collaborated on water research. The recent development of a Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Water Cooperation between the two countries tackles an interesting consequence of water conservation. As the water efficiency of plumbing fixtures increases, there has been a significant reduction in the flows moving through the sewer system, increasing the concentration of waste and creating challenges for existing processing facilities. The memorandum covers joint research to be conducted in this area.

Elvis to the rescue

Experimental Bushfire Set In Mccorkhill, Western Australia. Credit: CSIRO.
Experimental Bushfire Set In Mccorkhill, Western Australia. Credit: CSIRO.

Each year, the ‘Elvis’ air-crane and other giant firefighting helicopters migrate south from America to Australia, where they have saved many Australian lives and properties. American fire fighters and fire investigators have also been helping on the ground, especially following Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. And the cooperation works both ways, with Australia contributing both firefighting expertise and research support in response to recent Californian wildfires. A meeting organized by Australia’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in June 2010 has helped to broaden and formalize this collaboration, as researchers and fire managers from the US, New Zealand and Australia came together to share their knowledge and plan future collaborative work.

People

Fishy business

Dr Beth Fulton, based at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart and a former winner of the Prime Minister’s Life Scientist of the year award, is a world leader in modeling marine ecosystems. Dr Fulton works regularly with researchers from NOAA and US universities. Together they have developed management models for marine life along much of the west and east coasts of continental US, and now are studying the Gulf of Mexico and Hawaii.

Snow complications

The US and Australia maintain significant collaborative research programs in Antarctica, drilling ice cores that provide a detailed historical record of climate, and measuring the extent and thickness of the sea-ice, which has a major impact on climate. Fulbright scholar and University of Tasmania PhD student Ms Natalia Galin has been collaborating with researchers at the University of Kansas to measure snow thickness from a helicopter. An error in snow measurements above the water can be magnified by eight or nine times in estimating ice thickness below the water. However, the team’s specialized radar equipment provides accurate readings of snow thickness on sea ice—information that will be used to calibrate satellite remote sensing data.

The long-term view

An Australian paleontologist, who uncovered the earliest fossil of live birth in fishes, a key to our understanding of reproduction in animals with backbones, is now Vice-President Research and Collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Dr John Long was formerly Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria.

This is an part of a series of eight factsheets exploring US-Australian collaboration and outlining some of the ways that Australian science is contributing to America’s society and economy. You can download all of the factsheets as one PDF here.
  1. Overview: Innovation today means jobs and prosperity tomorrow. (Download PDF)
  2. Delivering sustainable agriculture and biosecurity. (Download PDF)
  3. Slivers of sun: clean energy and smarter mining. (Download PDF)
  4. Science collaboration improves health. (Download PDF)
  5. Understanding and responding to changing climate. (Download PDF)
  6. Traveling at Mach 5: Defense and materials science in action. (Download PDF)
  7. Searching the southern sky, and unchaining the internet. (Download PDF)
  8. The Australian science and technology system. (Download PDF)

Delivering sustainable agriculture and biosecurity

PhD student Elena Virtue at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory. Credit: CSIRO
PhD student Elena Virtue at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory. Credit: CSIRO

Across America’s Deep South, farmers are growing Australian-derived cotton and, as a result, slashing their use of pesticides. It’s part of a global drive to increase production and sustainability involving Australian and American researchers, and agritech giants such as Monsanto, Dow Chemical and DuPont. All these companies have agreements with Australian researchers helping to develop the next generation of smart crops. The underlying technologies are being applied to dozens of crops and even to medical research.

Meanwhile, US and Australian scientists are working side by side to enhance biosecurity—fighting deadly new killers such as Nipah virus, ancient plagues such as malaria, and emerging threats to agriculture and the environment. American scientists working in Brisbane are testing biological controls to fight against invasive plants that threaten the Florida Everglades, while NASA technology is helping Australia cope with its locust plagues and teams across both countries are trying to understand what is killing frogs worldwide.

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