Research opportunities

Although the Amgen Scholars Program is funded by the Amgen Foundation, there are research projects available in a variety of sectors beyond direct drug development.

The list of available projects for 2022 is available below. Please note that these are subject to change.

Please use contacts only for project-specific questions. If you have any queries about the program, please email amgen-scholars@unimelb.edu.au.

Lab Project summary Contact
Maher Research Laboratory Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell providing the body with over 90% of the energy it needs to sustain life. Mitochondrial diseases collectively represent the most common inborn errors of metabolism in humans. These are debilitating and potentially fatal diseases that reduce the ability of the mitochondria to produce this energy. We are interested in studying mitochondrial diseases that result from defects in the biogenesis of Complex IV, particularly related to copper transport. Copper is an essential trace element for eukaryotes and mechanisms must be in place to enable its trafficking to prevent its toxicity. Defects in Cu incorporation into Complex IV are an active and rapidly growing area of research. This project will examine the role of a host of Complex IV assembly factor proteins. Our laboratory specialises in the technique of X-ray crystallography, which allows us to visualise the three dimensional architectures of these proteins and therefore understand how they work. We aim to study the structures and functions of these proteins so we can understand why dysfunction causes disease. Megan Maher, megan.maher@unimelb.edu.au
 Leung Research Group
Our research group conducts multidisciplinary research to study enzymes with a focus on structure, function and modulation. We aim to utilise our knowledge to help solve some of the world’s most urgent challenges. These include studying mutant enzymes that cause diseases such as cancers, targeting bacterial enzymes that cause antibiotic resistance, as well as harnessing the catalytic activity of enzymes to break down environmental pollutants. A key step of our work involves the production and purification of recombinant proteins. In this summer project, you will conduct experiments to genetically modify microorganisms to produce recombinant proteins as well as optimising the procedure for protein purification. If time permits, you will also have the opportunity to use biophysical tools (such as mass spectrometry) to characterise the proteins that you will make. There are no formal prerequisites although an understanding of basic molecular biology and an enthusiasm in enzymology will be helpful. Training and supervision will be provided throughout the summer period. You will be an integral part of our research group and contribute to the generation of new knowledge for scientific publications. Examples of recent work from our group that include contribution from summer students: Correddu, D.; Montaño López, J. d. J.; Angermayr, S. A.; Middleditch, M. J.; Payne, L. S.; Leung, I. K. H. Effect of Consecutive Rare Codons on the Recombinant Production of Human Proteins in Escherichia coli. IUBMB Life 2020, 72, 266–274. Correddu, D.; Montaño López, J. d. J.; Vadakkedath, P. G.; Lai, A.; Pernes, J. I.; Watson, P. R.; Leung, I. K. H. An Improved Method for the Heterologous Production of Soluble Human Ribosomal Proteins in Escherichia coli. Sci. Rep. 2019, 9, 8884. Please feel free to contact me by email if you would like to find out more about our research!
Ivanhoe Leung, ivanhoe.leung@unimelb.edu.au
Epigenetics and Neuroplasticity Laboratory This research project will involve investigation of intergenerational epigenetic inheritance in a mouse model.  Following an experimental manipulation in adult male laboratory mice, we are interested in understanding epigenetic changes which may occur in this mice.  These mice (as well as control males) will be mated with standard female mice and phenotyping will be conducted on the offspring to establish whether such intergenerational inheritance can involve epigenetic modifiers.  This research has relevance to epigenetic modulation of brain function and dysfunction, and thus predisposition to various brain disorders. Tony Hannan, thannan@unimelb.edu.au
Wille Lab Exploring damage in plants by the air pollutants nitrogen dioxide and ozone Air pollution has become the largest environmental risk for society. Whereas much effort to gain insight into the detrimental effects of air pollution for human health is made, the impact on plants and vegetation is much less understood. Plants are an important food resource with wheat and rice being the leading source of energy in form of carbohydrates and proteins for humans worldwide. In light of the increasing pressure on agriculture to provide food security for a continuously growing population, it is remarkable that details of the damage in plants upon exposure to air pollutants are not yet well understood. Nitrogen dioxide and ozone are important irritant gaseous air pollutants in the environment, which are formed through combustion of fossil fuels and transformations of natural and man-made volatile organic compounds in the presence of light. This project aims to obtain a better mechanistic understanding how plants are damaged by nitrogen dioxide and ozone, using methods in physical organic chemistry (Wille lab, Chemistry) and analytical biochemistry (Roessner lab, BioSciences). By studying the chemical transformations of plant biomolecules upon exposure to nitrogen dioxide and ozone in isolation and in combination traits will be identified that could provide guidelines for the future development of crops with higher resilience to air pollution. Uta Wille, uwille@unimelb.edu.au
White Research Group Projects are available on the synthesis of precursor organic molecules for the purposes of radio labelling with the positron emitting isotope 18-F. The molecules will be labelled by collaborators at the Olivia Newton John Cancer Research centre and the labelled compounds tested as imaging agents for various types of tumour, including breast cancer and prostate cancers. Jonathan White, whitejm@unimelb.edu.au
Translational Neurogenetics Laboratory Somatic Mutations and Epilepsy Genomic testing of DNA extracted from peripheral blood lymphocytes can fail to detect pathogenic variants in individuals with brain lesions and epilepsy. Analysis of brain tissue specimens collected at neurosurgery can reveal causative somatic mosaic variants. Technologies such as high-depth sequencing or droplet digital PCR are key in detecting and quantifying mosaic variants even at low frequency in brain tissue. Precision case management and support are required to explain complex genomic tests and facilitate sample collection. Molecular diagnosis of a somatic variant can inform clinical management, prognosis, treatment strategies and recurrence risk for these individuals and their families. Aim: 1. To identify the causative somatic mosaic variant in an individual with lesional epilepsy 2. To gain hands-on experience with current genomic technologies 3. To understand the pathway from the clinic, through the laboratory process, to molecular diagnosis and back to the bedside Lab Website: https://medicine.unimelb.edu.au/research-groups/medicine-and-radiology-research/austin-hospital/translational-neurogenetics-laboratory Find an Expert Site: https://findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/profile/5791-michael-hildebrand
Michael Hildebrand – michael.hildebrand@unimelb.edu.au
Probiotics, prebiotics and gut health

 

The growing preference for functional foods favours the probiotic and prebiotic market growth and is expected to reach over USD 66 billion by 2024. Probiotics are live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer health benefits on the host through enhancing gut microbiome. Probiotics are associated with maintaining optimum microbial balance in the digestive tract with a number of well-documented health benefits. Therefore, these organisms such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria have been extensively incorporated into various food products over the last decade. Colonic foods, which encourage the growth of favourable bacteria, are referred to as prebiotics. There is an obvious potential for a synergetic effect when combining probiotics and prebiotics appropriately, because prebiotics promote the growth and activities of probiotics. Traditionally, probiotic delivery has been associated with dairy foods, however there is an increasing demand for non-dairy probiotic products due to vegetarianism, concerns over milk cholesterol content, and lactose intolerance. In order to provide beneficial health effects for the host animal, probiotic bacteria must survive through the gastrointestinal tract, tolerating acid, bile and gastric enzymes, and then adhere and colonize in the intestinal epithelium. These functional properties can be influenced by the type food carriers used in probiotic delivery. Hence, studies on influence of non-dairy plant-based food matrices on probiotic functional efficacy are crucial. Our recent work focus on the impact of various non-dairy food substrates on the gastrointestinal tolerance of probiotics (selected strains of lactobacilli & bifidibacteria) and their colonic fermentation in vitro. In addition, cell culture techniques with respect to probiotic adhesin into intestinal epithelium and basic molecular biological applications are also used. This study will evaluate the gastrointestinal tolerance and colonic fermentation of various probiotic species/ strain combinations in the presence of selected prebiotic food substances (inulin and fructooligosaccharides) in plant-based food matrices using in vitro techniques. Dr Senaka Ranadheera, senaka.ranadheera@unimelb.edu.au

 

Biomaterials lab Our lab develops new materials with the goal of improving the performance of biomedical devices or tissue engineered constructs. This project aims to develop next generation hydrogel bioinks for use in 3D printing/biofabrication technologies. This will be achieved through the synthesis of novel materials with controlled rheological and biological properties. Daniel Heath,

daniel.heath@unimelb.edu.au
Mycoplasma Lab, Asia Pacific Centre for Animal Health Mycoplasmas are the smallest free-living bacteria and many of them are pathogenic to humans and Animals. These pathogenic mycoplasmas are wall-less therefore resistant to many antimicrobials and develop antimicrobial resistance readily. Therefore, best method on controlling mycoplasma diseases is via vaccination. In our laboratory we work exclusively on developing vaccines against some of the major pathogenic mycoplasmas in production animals. We investigate the interactions between the mycoplasmas and their hosts to identify the virulent genes involved in pathogenicity of the bacteria, which would ultimately help to develop better vaccine candidates to control the diseases. These summer projects will investigate how pathogenic mycoplasmas interact with their host through in-vitro cell culture studies. You will get hands on experience in mycoplasma culture and quantification, cell-culture set up, different cell culture assays and molecular detection methods. These studies will help to establish in-vitro infection models for pathogenic mycoplasmas and drastically reduce the use of live animals for infection studies. Dr Nadeeka Wawegama,

nadeekaw@unimelb.edu.au

Preclinical Interface Neuromodulation Team, Bionics Institute Electrical bionic control over bladder function Using electricity to alter the activity of peripheral nerves has the potential to treat a wide range of diseases that are poorly controlled by pharmaceutical drugs. As peripheral nerves affect many of the organs in our bodies, such electroceutical intervention has been used for a wide range of human diseases. Furthermore, compared with the pharmaceutical drug screening process, developing a stimulation therapy can be rapidly driven into the clinic. The Preclinical Interface Neuromodulation Team (PINT), led by Research Director James Fallon at the Bionics Institute, aims to rapidly develop and validate novel bionic therapies for the eventual treatment of human diseases. One of our recent focus has been the development of technology to control bladder function for the treatment of urinary dysfunction. Following pelvic surgeries such as colorectal resections, prostatectomies and hysterectomies, nerves that control urination are often damaged, leading to urinary dysfunction. Here we use our custom made electrode array to explore a range of stimulation strategies to either induce or delay urination. James Fallon, jfallon@bionicsinstitute.org
Pires Research Group Title: Predicting cancer risk and predisposition from genomics data

 

Summary: Over the course of evolution, mutations have the important role of introducing diversity into genomes. Mutations that affect proteins (those that we inherit from our parents and those that we accumulate over the years) may also lead to disease and disease predisposition, including many different types of cancer. Understanding and predicting the effects of these mutations on proteins may give us clues to their potential role in diseases and indicate whether we have a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer. Over the years we have developed a range of computational tools to quantitatively assess how mutations affect protein function (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24281696/) and showed this can be used to identify those mutations that may lead to kidney cancer (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24969085/). This project will build on these efforts to develop new methods to predict whether mutations can lead to other types of cancer by combining patient data, outcomes and genome information via supervised learning.

Douglas Pires, douglas.pires@unimelb.edu.au
Wong Laboratory
My group is primarily involved in the synthesis of materials for applications in light harvesting, energy conversion and biological imaging. Our approach to research includes the following steps: 1. an application or problem is identified; 2. the design of new materials is conceived; 3. Compounds are synthesised and 4. the materials are tested and results are used to make improvements. This means a good understanding of synthesis, characterisation and applications is essential. Projects include: 1. Novel fluorophores for biological imaging. 2. Fluorophores for luminescent solar concentrators and organic lasers. 3. Improving solar cell efficiency by photon refinement: organic dyes for triplet fusion (TF) upconversion wwhwong@unimelb.edu.au
Epigenetics and Neuroplasticity Laboratory (project 2) We are investigating how genetic and environmental factors combine to cause specific disorders of brain development and function affecting behaviour and cognition, including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, Huntington’s disease (a tandem repeat disorder) and dementia. We are interested in the mechanisms whereby specific genes regulate maturation and function of the brain and are dynamically regulated by interaction with the environment. This extends to intergenerational epigenetics, where environmental exposures (including exercise, stress and diet) modulate offspring phenotypes. Our research links data at behavioural and cognitive levels to underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms. We use a variety of behavioural tools, including automated touchscreen testing of cognition and high-throughput data analysis of vocalization and communication, that are directly translatable to clinical tests. We are establishing the extent to which experience-dependent plasticity can modulate these behavioural and cognitive endophenotypes, in models with targeted genome editing. This cellular level of understanding is linked, in turn, to molecular mechanisms, investigated with epigenetic, transcriptomic, proteomic and metabolomic tools. Our latest studies also link the brain and body, via genes and environment, including the microbiome-gut-brain axis. Based on this research, and the identification of key target molecules, we are also exploring the concept of ‘enviromimetics’, therapeutics that mimic or enhance the beneficial effects of cognitive stimulation and physical exercise. One goal is to develop such therapeutic agents to help reduce the personal and societal burdens of devastating disorders of brain and mind. Tony Hannan, thannan@unimelb.edu.au