Professor Parton (top) and Professor Hall
Professor Parton (top) and Professor Hall
28 January 2009

Two University of Queensland scientists have been awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australia Fellowships valued at a total of $8 million.

The Fellowships, announced today, will focus on improving drug treatments, and the ethical issues raised by genetic research on addiction and new forms of drug treatment that help people with addictions to become and remain abstinent.

UQ receives two out of a total of 12 new Australia Fellowships, which are each worth $4 million over five years and are the most prestigious NHMRC research awards.

Professor Rob Parton from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) will use his Fellowship to investigate a microscopic vehicle with the potential to deliver treatments directly into cells.

"A serious problem with many treatments today, especially for cancer, is that they kill healthy cells as well as diseased cells," Professor Parton said.

"Targeted drug delivery systems, in which the drugs are enclosed in a vehicle that is targeted towards specific sites in the body, can avoid this problem."

The development of the vehicle will build on Professor Parton’s discovery of extremely small ‘shells’ that can be budded off from the surface of E. coli cells when a mammalian protein is added.

Although E. coli are bacteria, the nanoshells themselves contain no detectable trace of bacterial proteins. Instead, other molecules, such as a drug, can be incorporated into the shells during the budding process, creating a vehicle for delivery.

Just as important as the formation of the nanoshells is the discovery that they can be made to target specific cell types, through engineering the protein that triggers the formation of the nanoshells and coats their exterior. This will give the drug delivery vehicle its accuracy, and avoid killing healthy cells.

Another advantage of the shells is that they are extremely small, an order of magnitude smaller than many current treatments. This will allow them to reach targets more efficiently, which will yield treatments that work faster and more effectively.

"As well as a system of more targeted drug delivery, this research will also give us more information on the workings of mammalian cells, and particularly new insights into critical processes disrupted in disease," Professor Parton said.

Professor Wayne Hall, of UQ’s School of Population Health, will use his funding to establish a world-class research program that will focus on the ethical implications of new treatments for drug use and addiction that are emerging from cutting edge genetics and neuroscience.

Professor Hall, an internationally renowned social science researcher, said there was a need for the community and policy makers to understand the implications of new treatments arising from these discoveries.

The program will involve collaboration with researchers, treatment practitioners, drug users, people with addictions and their families and carers, as well as government policy makers.

"We will review research as it happens and interview leading addiction practitioners to identify new treatments that are likely to arise," Professor Hall said.

"We’ll explore the views of practitioners and those people most affected by these treatments and explain the implications to both the community and government.

"The effectiveness and cost of potential treatments and identification of the most promising will also be a key role."

UQ’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor David Siddle, praised Professors Parton and Hall, and said it was pleasing to see that UQ had won two NHMRC Australia Fellowships for two consecutive years.

"These prestigious fellowships are recognition of excellence in health research and for UQ researchers to attract these awards so consistently is a great credit to our research capacity," Professor Siddle said.

In 2008, Dr Matt Cooper moved to the IMB from the United Kingdom after being awarded an Australia Fellowship, and Professor Wendy Hoy of UQ’s Centre for Chronic Disease received the award to support her research in Indigenous health.

Media: Professor Rob Parton or Bronwyn Adams, IMB, telephone 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247 or Marlene McKendry, Faculty of Health Sciences, (07) 3346 4713 / mobile: 0401 996 847.