By Andrea Wild
New Zealand’s weta insects are the stuff of legend: portrayed by Hollywood as huge, spiky man-eaters attacking King Kong explorers in faraway lands (well, as seen below in the 2005 version at least… WARNING: Terrible acting!):
In reality, weta are a little less fantastic than their popular culture portrayal – but that’s not to say they don’t still hold a few surprises of their own. They are indeed big: some weta species are among the largest and heaviest insects in the world. And while they are technically vegetarian, their large mandibles have been known to deliver an aggressive and painful bite to wayward humans.
But perhaps most surprisingly, weta may hold the key to developing better hearing aids.
Yes, you heard correctly! It turns out that a unique lipid – a fatty waxy material found in the ears of the weta – may hold the key to better hearing for us humans.
One of our postdoctoral fellows, Kate Lomas, studied the hearing of the New Zealand tree weta (Hemideina thoracica) at the University of Auckland, discovering the unusual lipid and finding that it moves in response to sound as a travelling wave.
Weta are known to have excellent hearing: they can detect the gentle rustling of a predatory bat creeping through leaf litter. Their ears (which are in their legs!) have an unusual channel that functions like a human’s cochlea, but that uses the lipid, instead of hair cells, to cause vibrations.
We think it’s this unique function that gives the weta their excellent auditory skills.
In a classic example of New Zealand ingenuity being exported across the ditch to Australia, Kate and her team are now attempting to isolate the lipid from the weta’s close cousin, the Australian king cricket, to understand its structure. They can then learn how to synthesise the lipid in the lab, so that they can study its acoustic properties and test its potential acoustic applications.
This is a process known as biomimetics: the mimicking of naturally-occurring systems and elements to solve complex human problems. By unlocking the basic properties of the lipid, Kate and her team hope to replicate its success in, and improve the capability of, auditory technologies like hearing aids, highly sensitive audio sensors, microphones and even ultrasound probes.
Who knows what other surprises the weta may hold for us yet?
By Emily Lehmann
Diamonds may be the ultimate in glitz for their beauty and unparalleled sparkle, but for us, the real diamond gems captivating our attention are invisible.
Tiny diamond nanoparticles (or nanodiamonds) – only an 8000th the width of a human hair – are proving to be extremely valuable in medicine, giving way to new life saving treatments and diagnostic tests.
Just a couple of years ago, a diamond discovery by our virtual nanoscientist and current Feynman Prize winner, Amanda Barnard, underpinned a new chemotherapy treatment that targets brain tumours.
Developed by the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), the treatment uses nanodiamonds to carry chemotherapy drugs directly into brain tumours, providing greater cancer-killing efficiency and less side effects than other treatments.
The technology was made possible thanks to Amanda’s discovery that diamond nanoparticles have unique electrostatic properties that repel or attract (kind of like a magnet) so that they spontaneously arrange into very useful structures.
Let’s take a closer look at what that looks like. Nanodiamonds have many facets – imagine the polished cut of a precious gem or the surface of a soccer ball – and each facet has an electrostatic property characterised by a different colour.
The coloured surface of one nanodiamond connects with the complementary colour surface of another nanodiamond, while surfaces of the same colour repel. Multiply this process by many and the particles come together much like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
It’s these electrostatic properties that the UCLA used to bond to the chemotherapy drug, doxorubicin, to the nanodiamonds at a molecular level.
The nanodiamond-doxorubicin combination (or NDX) delivers the same drug but with greater precision, in reduced doses, and with a slower and sustained release. It has been shown to delay tumour growth and improve patient outcomes.
Nanotechnologies like this offer huge potential in medicine, and when employed side by side with pharmacology, will improve drug delivery methods and speed up drug discovery.
For example, we can move away from repeated, re-administration of treatments and use more implants that offer the same (or better) control over dose rate and treatment cycles.
New drugs that more effectively target the site of disease will also lead to reduced dosages and less side effects, as well as the ability to tailor treatments.
We hope that our nanoscience research will continue to influence breakthrough health developments that benefit people around the globe.
By Andrea Wild
What do the new Apple Watch, a blood glucose meter, a smartphone and a tablet computer have in common? They’re all rigid quadrilateral polyhedrons: rectangles that don’t bend.
Screens can be flexible. Printed flexible circuit boards are out there. So why are all our personal electronics rigid rectangles?
The answer is the size and shape of the battery that powers them. In some devices, like your smartphone, the battery can take up more than half of the total size and you’ll still find yourself recharging it every night.
What if batteries were flexible? What could a smartwatch do if it were liberated from its battery? What would it look like?
Our Advanced Energy Storage team has invented a flexible battery, and it got them dreaming about the future of wearable electronics. What if our flexible battery could recharge itself? What if we didn’t need any wires to connect devices to it? Could we make personal electronics that are truly wearable?
Could we make a seamless heart rate monitor that’s part of running clothes, or a smartphone that wraps around your wrist, a dress that sparkles with lights like it’s been embroidered with thousands of little diamonds, a back pack that powers a GPS and other equipment for hikers or cross country skiers, or a small bag that powers medical devices?
“Absolutely!” says Adam Best of our Advanced Energy Storage team. “Our wearable energy system is called FIED [Flexible Integrated Energy Device]. It’s made up of three parts. First is an energy harvesting system that harnesses energy from the natural movements of the wearer. Second is a flexible battery that stores the energy until it’s needed. Third is a washable fabric woven from conductive fibres that doubles as cabling to connect your electronic devices.
“We think we’ve solved four problems to do with wearable electronics. Batteries are rigid. Ours is flexible. Batteries go flat. FIED is like a supercharged Energizer bunny. Energy harvesters can be heavy and hard to wear. Ours is barely there. And wires? We’ve got rid of them. The only visible feature that will distinguish our clothes or bags from the rest of your wardrobe is a number of small outlets in which to plug electronic devices.
“We think the battery is the best bit. It’s bendable and flexible. It can liberate a device from its electronics, letting it take on a size and shape that truly fits its purpose.
“When people think of wearable electronics, they think of things like the Apple Watch and Fitbits. A flexible battery could certainly improve the design and functionality of these kinds of devices. But they aren’t truly wearable in the way we think of it. We’re dreaming of a seamless user experience.”
CSIRO is looking for partners to collaborate with us to realise the dream of wearable electronics.
Contact Adam Best: email@example.com or 03 9545 8660.
By Pamela Tyers
What’s the most deadly creature in the world? The lion? The shark? In fact, it’s a bit of a trick question (do humans count?)… but there is a fair argument that the humble mozzie is the world’s top killer.
Many species of mosquito carry deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and west nile virus. Malaria in particular places a huge health and economic burden on developing countries. According to the World Health Organisation, almost 200 million people caught malaria and more than half a million of them died from it in 2013 alone.
Thankfully, Australian scientists have made a significant discovery that could lead to the development of new tests for diagnosing malaria – potentially saving millions of lives. By identifying distinctive chemicals in our breath, researchers have been able to detect whether someone is infected with the disease.
A team of our scientists joined with QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Australian National University to look at the breath of volunteers who had been given a controlled malaria infection, as part of existing studies to develop new malaria treatments.
The research found that the levels of some normally almost undetectable chemicals increased markedly in their breath during the infection.
Stephen Trowell leads our research on the work. He is particularly excited because the new testing method allows us to diagnose malaria much earlier than with other tests.
“The increase in these chemicals were present at very early stages of infection, when many other methods would have been unable to detect the parasite in the body of people infected with malaria.”
“Overall, our breath could prove to be a much better alternative to blood tests for diagnosing the disease.”
The research, published today in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, was undertaken in two independent studies where experimental drug treatments were being tested in volunteers who had been given a very small dose of infection. Using a sophisticated analytical instrument, Stephen and the researchers identified four sulphur-containing compounds whose levels varied during the course of the malaria infection.
These sulphur-containing chemicals have not previously been associated with any disease and their concentrations changed in a consistent pattern over the course of the malaria infection, correlating with the severity of the infection. They effectively disappeared after the patients were cured.
Currently, diagnosing malaria involves using powerful microscopes to look for parasites in blood using a method discovered in 1880. As the world starts to work towards the elimination of malaria, there is an urgent need for more sensitive and convenient tests to detect early and hidden cases.
The team are now collaborating in regions where malaria is endemic to test for the chemicals in the breath of patients with the disease. They are also developing very specific, sensitive and cheap “biosensors” that could be used in the clinic and the field to breath test for malaria.
We’ve worked on developing a range of similar bioproducts – you can read more about them here.
For media enquiries, contact Andreas Kahl on andreas.kahl(at)csiro.au or +61 407 751 330.
Australian company Admedus has been making headlines recently for its innovative medical material, CardioCel. The tiny, flexible patch, made using part of a cow’s heart, is being used to treat potentially devastating birth defects like congenital heart disease – and it’s taking the international medical community by storm.
What’s more, we’re proud as punch to say that we were integrally involved in its success.
Our researchers worked with Admedus to assess the suitability of CardioCel for use in stem cell therapy in heart failure patients by comparing it with another commonly-used product. We found that CardioCel was well suited to cardiovascular cell therapy, and that it could have potentially groundbreaking applications in other areas of stem cell delivery too.
It’s since been implanted in more than 1200 patients across Australia, Europe, North America and Asia.
This is just one of many medical success stories we’ve been a part of. So, just because we like the number five, here’s five more:
When a Victorian man was facing amputation of his leg due to bone cancer in his heel bone, his doctor turned to us for help. Professor Peter Choong, from Melbourne’s St Vincent Hospital, knew about our work in titanium 3D printing and wondered if we could print a workable heel bone transplant, thus removing the need for amputation. We helped turn his vision – a metallic implant which could support a human body’s weight – into a world first-reality.
We’re working with Universal Biosensors to trial on-the-spot testing and results for a range of crucial blood tests. The immediacy of results means that patients avoid the dreadful stress that comes with waiting, as well as receiving treatment faster. By broadening the application of point-of-care testing, we will see time and cost savings for already-stretched healthcare providers. Not bad for a little prick.
Using the same technology that drives state-of-the-art video games, we created a ‘virtual heart’ simulation that the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute are using to better diagnose and treat heart rhythm disease. Who said nothing good ever came from gaming?
Winning the waiting game in our hospitals
Our Demand Prediction Analysis Tool can predict bed demand in hospital emergency rooms by the hour, day and week, greatly easing the pressure on their emergency wards. A similar technology has already been rolled out in more than 30 hospitals in Queensland (hello, Schoolies!) and is currently being trialled in Victoria.
Know your enemy
Collectively, Alzheimer’s and Type 2 diabetes impact the lives of millions of Australians. Their symptoms on the surface are known only too well – but how they affect us on the cellular level is a mystery to many. We brought the science behind the illnesses to life, using animations that explain very complex biological processes related to each disease with scientific accuracy. This is a truly unique way of zooming in on what happens inside our body, but can’t be seen with the naked eye.
For more information on our medical research, check out the health hub on our new website.
By Andrea Wild
Statistics help us with many things. Using stats we can count how many whales there are in the sea, protect the Great Barrier Reef from agricultural run-off, and even decide whether playing lotto is a good investment or not. In fact, stats could even help us better grow our own bones back.
Thanks to a mishap on the soccer field, a car accident or a disease like osteoporosis, many of us will need to grow new bone at some stage of our lives. Luckily, our stem cells are pretty good at patrolling our bodies and fixing any damage. But when bones need help to heal, surgical grafts (of either bone itself or a biomaterial) can encourage new bone to grow in the right place. These biomaterials are used in medicine to repair or replace diseased or damaged parts of the body.
The UK’s Imperial College London (ICL) has been developing a biomaterial known as strontium-modified bioactive glass for use as a bone graft. The bioactive glass dissolves slowly and releases the strontium, which coaxes mesenchymal stem cells to turn into bone cells, healing the damaged bone.
But how does it work? What’s happening inside the cell? Many researchers have wondered.
Thanks to what are known as gene expression microarrays, it’s possible to screen the body cells’ response to a treatment at the genetic level. But this process creates masses of data, which can be a mystery in themselves. The answers are in there, but where?
Enter our computational modellers, led by Dave Winkler, and their new statistical technique for analysing gene data: sparse feature selection. They collaborated with the ICL’s Helene Autefage and Molly Stevens, who head up one of the world’s leading biomaterials groups, to solve the strontium bioactive glass mystery.
Here’s how it works, in four easy steps (not that we suggest trying this at home):
- Take human mesenchymal stem cells from three patients and treat them with strontium bioactive glass extracts.
- Run a microarray experiment to find out which genes have been effected by strontium in these cells.
- Put the data into a hat.
- Wave your sparse feature selection wand, and pull out eleven genes that matter most in stimulating bone growth from the 1000 or so genes that were influenced by strontium.
Sounds simple, right? We should note that we glossed over some very important researchers and their work, which you can learn more about here.
But the next step is the really exciting bit: drug discovery. Understanding why strontium helps new bones grow opens the way for drug development.
Statistical analysis has taught us that the biological pathways involved are those that make fatty acids and sterols inside our cells. If we can use this knowledge now to develop more targeted drugs, it’s possible that some surgical bone grafts won’t be necessary in the future. There may be a less invasive way of encouraging bone to regenerate and that would be fantastic news for an ageing population facing degenerative diseases like osteoporosis.
Taking similar steps to provide in-depth knowledge of the effects of specific biomaterials on cell behaviour could lead to new treatments for many different diseases that are more effective, easier to administer, less toxic, and cause fewer side effects.
And it’s all thanks to a little statistics.
This research was published today in the journal PNAS. Read about other new health technologies we’re developing.
For media inquiries, contact Andrea.Wild@csiro.au or +61 415 199 434