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    Biotech Bull-ants

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    Our biotechnologists are making all manner of discoveries across a diverse range of sectors, generating lucrative commercial opportunities along the way. Roving Anthillians Lize Heynes and Catherine Kerstjens isolated six Australian biotechs whose innovative mastery of molecule mysteries could well make waves on the global stage.
     

    SHEARER’S DELIGHT

    It is suggested that counting sheep induces sleep, but scientists at the CSIRO are awake to the benefits that biotechnology can bring to the nation’s famed wool industry. Their quest to develop a vaccine that boosts wool growth could see farmers flocking to their doorstep.
    “This technique does not use drugs, chemicals or antibiotics, it just draws on the animal’s own immune system without causing any harm to either the animal or the environment,” says CSIRO molecular biologist and principal research scientist, Dr André-Denis Wright.
     
    The prototype vaccine is designed to significantly increase wool production by targeting a specific group of organisms (protozoa) that make up 50 to 80 percent of microbial protein in a sheep’s stomach (rumen). By decreasing the population of rumen protozoa, the amount of valuable microbial protein flowing through to the animal’s small intestine will increase considerably — with increased wool growth a key outcome.
     
    “In this day and age of increased concern about food safety and wool residues, the use of a vaccine assists producers to increase production without encountering risks,” says Wright.
     
    According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia is the world’s largest wool producing country. But wool production has been declining in the country over the last ten years and forecasts have suggested that this will continue in the medium term.
     
    “If a vaccine can be developed that has practical application to the sheep industry, the second phase of the project will be to develop a practical method of delivering the vaccine,” says Wright.
    Already holding the worldwide patent for the technology, the CSIRO hopes to commence field experiments in large flocks of Merinos late in 2006.
    It’s promising news for a country that rode the sheep’s back for so many generations. It’s good to know that innovative research could make that ride even more comfortable in the future.
     
     
     


    CRYSTAL CLEAR

    Water is one of our most precious resources and one that is easily wasted and contaminated. Take the example of a meat processing plant producing 10,000m3 of wastewater a day — roughly equivalent to the pollution generated by a small city with a population of 100,000 people.
     
    Industries such as these produce large quantities of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients are particularly harmful to sensitive water systems like the Murray River and the Great Barrier Reef, causing toxic algal blooms and damaging the ecosystem.
     
    In Australia, traditional methods for treating industrial wastewater have been particularly ineffective in removing phosphorus. To solve the problem, scientists from the Environmental Biotechnology CRC (EBCRC) at the University of Queensland have come up with a biotechnology solution using ‘friendly’ bacteria.
     
    Professor Linda Blackall, EBCRC’s research director, works to understand the microbial transformations taking place in the traditional wastewater treatment process. With this knowledge, the team can provide the best conditions for bacteria to remove phosphorus and other nutrients.
     
    The next step is to develop online control systems to keep acid, oxygen and nutrient levels at an optimum, enabling the bacteria to remove the maximum pollutants.
    Trials have shown that the technique can remove 95 percent of total organic carbon, 98 percent of nitrogen and 99 percent of phosphorus. The treated water could then be reused for irrigation and aquaculture, or released back into the environment.
     
    While the technique is still in its infancy, it is progressing rapidly. Professor Blackall expects that EBCRC will be ready for a pilot or full-scale processing plant test later this year.
    Great news for industry — and the environment.
     
     


    THE SCIENCE OF SINGLE
     
    After pioneering the concept that ‘Junk’ (non-coding) DNA was too tidy to be junk, pathologist and immunogeneticist Dr Malcolm Simons is busy inventing a new, improved gene discovery strategy. For this new technology, dubbed ‘Haplomics’, ‘simple’ equates to ‘single’.
     
    “We inherit our DNA as long threads (chromosomes) in pairs, one from each parent. And we don’t inherit the chromosomes intact,” says Dr Simons. “Cross-overs occur during chromosome formation such that each chromosome is more like a series of cylindrical rods, placed end-to-end, rods inherited from mother alternating with those from the father.”
     
    When the DNA is extracted from cells, the rod components of each chromosome pair end up tangled beyond recognition.
     
    “The fundamental challenge is to piece the DNA back together, to reconstruct the two chromosome types into two separate, single chromosome half-types. We call this process HaploidTyping,” says Dr Simons.
     
    The single-chromosome method is simple because it overcomes ambiguities inherent in two-chromosome, or Diploid, genomics.
     
    As Chief Scientific Officer of Melbourne-based Haplomic Technologies Pty Ltd, Dr Simons’s mission, along with CEO Geoff Swanson, is to invent and commercialise intellectual property in pre-translation genetics. Haplomic Technologies is currently developing proof of concept and proof of application development prior to licensing.
     
    The technology has serious potential to save lives. A process called Hi-SNP Typing can be used to better match organ and tissue donors with recipients, lowering the risk of transplant rejection. HaploidTyping can refine the search for genes associated with hereditary disease, with the potential to pick up previously undetected disease-contributory genes. Haplomics performs DNA sequence typing using proprietary software, OligoSelect.
     
    The same technology can be used to predict a patient’s response to drugs, identifying who can expect to benefit, those at risk of a toxic reaction and those who might as well be taking a placebo.

    For more information [email protected]

     
     



    CONTRACEPTION JUST A SPRAY AWAY
     
    Contraceptives can be problematic: condoms break, pills are forgotten and patches itch. Now Australian biotech company Acrux has come up with a world first — a contraceptive spray for women.
     
    Melbourne-based Acrux recently announced positive results in clinical trials of the skin spray, working with international research organisation, The Population Council.
     
    The spray uses Acrux’s patented Metered Dose Transdermal System (MDTS) to administer a pre-set dose of the contraceptive Nestorone to the skin. The fast-drying spray allows Nestorone to be gradually absorbed into the bloodstream.
     
    Unlike older contraceptive methods, the spray is suitable for breastfeeding mothers and women who cannot tolerate contraceptive pills with oestrogens. It also has a more flexible dosing time compared with progestogen-only pills, leaves no visible residue on the skin and causes much less irritation than patches.
     
    “We believe that many women will prefer this method,” says Dr Igor Gonda, Acrux CEO and Managing Director. “Our transdermal sprays are easy to use and eliminate the need to swallow pills, suffer through injections or wear patches.”
     
    Women in this first-stage trial were postmenopausal, so the next trial will test the spray to control ovulation in premenopausal women. Acrux plans to continue testing and look at suitable partners for the spray’s global development and commercialisation.
     
    Dr Gonda explains that Acrux’s MDTS technology is also being developed to treat hormonal and central nervous disorders and skin disease, including products for menopause, low levels of androgen in men and women and a severe pain treatment.
     
     
     



    GOOD FOR WHAT AILS YOU
     
    It’s well known that red wine and epiphanies go hand in hand. This is not lost on Professor David Sinclair, who is looking to produce the longevity elixir of science fiction using an ingredient found in red wine.
     
    The expatriate Australian, now working at the Harvard Medical School in Boston, is leading research into the process of ageing and the impact that an antioxidant compound in red wine, Resveratrol, could have on this process.
     
    “If we can learn to harness the body’s own defences against disease, it’s difficult to exaggerate the benefits that this would have,” says Professor Sinclair. “We appear to be on the verge of a medical revolution — a 90 year old might feel as though they were 50, both mentally and physically.”
     
    The discovery that caloric restriction increases the lifespan of rats — protecting them against diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes — has fuelled Professor Sinclair’s decade-long ambition to discover how the human body protects itself against disease.
     
    “We have now found a gene called SIRT1 that extends the lifespan of organisms such as yeast, worms and flies by mimicking caloric restriction,” says Professor Sinclair. “We have also discovered small molecules that activate the SIRT1 protein, and extend the lifespan of these simple species.”
     
    Following successful trials in mice addressing diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s, Professor Sinclair hopes to use these molecules to develop drugs for human treatment.
     
    And by next year, he claims, “we will know if one of the molecules — the red wine ingredient, Resveratrol — extends the lifespan of mice.”
    Here, at last, is a potential antidote to the ails of old age that should give even the sternest cynic that warm, fuzzy feeling.
     
     


    THE ROAD TO A MILKIER WAY
     
    First, the human genome project illuminated the rich complexity of our genetic make-up. Now, researchers from the CRC for Innovative Dairy Products are using the same idea to help improve Australia’s dairy herd.
     
    Using bioinformatics, the team has created a comprehensive map of 10,340 genes and markers across all 31 cattle chromosomes. The map will point the way to ‘dairy’ genes, so that researchers can find out which dairy cows are likely to produce more milk or be more resistant to diseases, such as mastitis.
     
    “For the dairy industry to fully capture the fruits of the genomics revolution, we need the most detailed possible map of each cattle chromosome combining all available information into a single map for each chromosome,” says project leader Professor Frank Nicholas from the University of Sydney.
     
    “The map is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Almost every day, the map is being used within the CRC to advance our knowledge of genes that are important to the dairy industry.”
     
    To create the map, the CRC collaborated with UK geneticist Dr Andy Collins, from the University of Southampton. Collins was involved in the team that developed a strategy and computer tools for creating a single comprehensive map of the human genome in the early 1990s, and his strategy and tools are now being adapted and extended by the CRC team.
     
    Dr Paul Donnelly, Chief Executive Officer of the CRC believes this to be the era of ‘big science’. “People from wideranging disciplines with different capabilities, working together across institutes, using high-end computer power and all focused on the same goals have significantly accelerated this research effort. This project and its results epitomise what a CRC can achieve.”
    The cow maps are yet another example of how innovative Australian scientific R&D continues to steer our economy in the right direction.
     
     
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