28 September 2010

Most people don’t think twice about the roundworms in their backyard, however Dr Massimo Hilliard has built his career studying them – and now the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) neuroscientist has been rewarded for his efforts.

Dr Hilliard received an $80,000 2010 Research Excellence Award from The University of Queensland Foundation which recognises his work improving the understanding of nerve regeneration in the roundworm, or Caenorhabditis elegans.

His research could eventually enable scientists to rebuild connections in the human nervous system after damage caused by conditions such as spinal cord injury and stroke.

Animal models with a simple nervous system are vital for this type of research, and C. elegans animals have only 302 neurons in their entire body, compared to humans who have billions of neurons just in their brains.

“With C. elegans we can visualise cells individually, which means we can look at exactly what happens in one single cell after damage. The powerful genetic tools available contribute to make C. elegans one of the best systems to find out what is going on molecularly,” Dr Hilliard said.

The molecular and cellular neurobiologist cautioned that his research was still in its relative infancy and that any treatment would still be many years off.

However, he said he and his team were making solid progress.

“When an axon is cut it is hard for it to regenerate and it’s hard to know exactly what is happening at the injury site. We are interested in understanding how axons regenerate and how they reconnect with each other,” Dr Hilliard said.

“Every time there is damage there is a need for the neurons to regain the connection, so we are aiming to define how repair works and how we can enhance that.”

Dr Hilliard said his interest in C. elegans began in his student days and had continued through to his current position at the Queensland Brain Institute, where he began working in 2007.

“I was attracted to the idea of working in a neuroscience-specific research facility. The first time I came to QBI everyone was thinking and talking about neurons, which was very exciting for me. Combined with the beautiful surroundings at UQ, researching here was an obvious choice,” he said.

And, he said, winning coveted prizes such as UQ’s Research Excellence Award made his work all the more fulfilling.

“It’s always very fulfilling when your peers and the scientific community value your efforts and support your research. This prestigious recognition comes as a strong motivation to our commitment to do good science and make important discoveries,” he said.

Dr Hilliard received his award at a special ceremony at Customs House on Wednesday, September 22, as part of UQ’s annual Research Week.

The UQ Foundation Research Excellence Awards have been running for 12 years and are an initiative of UQ to recognise outstanding performance and leadership potential in early career researchers. This year’s awards total $910,000.

Media: Anna Bednarek, QBI Communications Manager (phone: +61 7 3346 6414 or email: a.bednarek@uq.edu.au).

Notes to the editor:

Dr Massimo Hilliard received his PhD in Biological Chemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Naples, Italy, in 2001. He then conducted his first postdoctoral placement at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to the University of California, San Francisco. At The Rockefeller University, he switched from neuronal function to neuronal development, focusing in particular on how neurons establish and orient their polarity with respect to extracellular cues. Dr Hilliard accepted a Faculty position at the Queensland Brain Institute, The University of Queensland in 2007.

The Queensland Brain Institute was established as a research institute of The University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operating out of a new $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 28 Principal Investigators with strong international reputations. QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.