Neurophysiologist Professor David Adams joined the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at UOW in December, bringing his substantial program of research and management experience. He details his career background and early impressions of IHMRI below.   

“I studied science at the University of New South Wales, but to be honest I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Things started to turn around in my third year when I attended lectures on membrane physiology with Professor Peter Gage, an inspirational lecturer and researcher who was at the forefront of ion channel research.

I did Honours in his lab in 1973 and was then conscripted to fight in Vietnam. I was able to defer this by undertaking a PhD with a Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholarship. Under Professor Gage’s supervision, I had my first paper published in Science in 1976 and the output of my PhD also included two papers in Nature and four in the Journal of Physiology. I am indebted to him for the opportunity to have a career in medical research.

When I first went overseas in 1978, I soon realised that the work I had been doing in Professor Gage’s lab was at the cutting-edge. I was able to attract a Muscular Dystrophy of America Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Washington (1978-80), then a Grass Fellowship in Neurophysiology at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole Massachusetts (1980), followed by a Beit Memorial Fellowship for Medical Research at University College London (1981-84).

In 1984, I was recruited by the University of Miami School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology. While there, I helped to establish, and was Associate Director of, the National Institutes of Environmental and Health Sciences Center for Marine Biomedical Research.

I returned to Australia in late 1995 to take up the Chair of Physiology at the University of Queensland (UQ). It was an interesting time. Peter Beattie was elected Premier and UQ was also changing under the leadership of Vice-Chancellor John Hay. The Pro Vice-Chancellor (Biological Sciences) at the time was Professor Alan Pettigrew, who is now IHMRI’s Chair.

I became the Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences in 2000 and in that role was keen to build on the strength of neuroscience research at UQ. I approached Professor Hay with regard to a neuroscience initiative. Donations from Atlantic Philanthropies, coupled with University and State Government funding, saw the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) founded in 2003.

I left UQ in 2009 to become Director of the Health Innovations Research Institute (HIRi) at RMIT University, Melbourne. There, I focused on identifying research-active and externally-funded researchers in the biomedical sciences, establishing four programs based on critical mass: Biophysics and Bioengineering, Metabolism, Exercise and Disease, Traditional and Complementary Medicine, and Ion Channels and Transporters as Therapeutic Targets. The Institute has been instrumental in building the research culture and infrastructure at RMIT’s Bundoora campus.

I acted as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at RMIT between May 2013 and February 2014. This was a great experience, giving me insights into university-wide challenges and initiatives.

My interest in the role at IHMRI was really sparked by talking to Professor Pettigrew. I realised the opportunity at IHMRI was unique in that it is a partnership between UOW and the Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health District.

That’s one of the real advantages of IHMRI - not every institute is fortunate enough to have that founding partnership between the local area health district and the University. I am passionate about research translation and so far, I’ve only had strong commitment from IHMRI’s partners to build on that. The opportunity of working with clinicians, and the broader Illawarra community, is great. It is a model that provides real opportunities for research impact.

In science now, in research now, the biggest change I’ve seen since from when I started is that if you want to be competitive, it’s about the research team. You can’t do it yourself. Of course you need an area of focus – if you want someone who can work in ion channels, I can do it – but that’s only part of the story if I want to actually develop and deliver to market a drug to treat chronic pain. So the role I see for this Institute is to develop an environment and culture where people feel supported in research, and feel they can have successful careers. For me, I need to help develop a culture of engagement and connection. Part of this will mean attracting some outside talent, and building depth: of expertise, of research profile, of people.

There is some fantastic work underway here, and plenty of potential, that is what’s exciting. This includes for me personally, as IHMRI offers some new opportunities for my research.

My research involves the use of state of-the-art electrophysiological and fluorescence imaging techniques to investigate the targets and mechanisms of action of analgesic peptides on membrane receptors and ion channels expressed in the sensory neurons of pain pathways.

At the moment, we are pursuing investigation of a peptide derived from the venom of marine cone snails as a novel candidate for treating visceral pain. There’s always been a lot of emphasis on understanding and treating neuropathic pain, in actual fact visceral pain is as predominant, if not more, in terms of population health. For example, one in five people in Australia – the majority of whom are women - suffer from the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and there’s just no good treatment. We’re optimistic about the potential of the peptide we have characterised for IBS.

I’ve also more recently become involved in investigating opportunities of utilising peptides for targeted drug delivery, for example in getting anti-cancer drugs to tumours. What we find in say, lung cancer, is an overexpression of a certain receptor by the cancerous cells. If we have a peptide that is very selective for that receptor and no other for that receptor, then that peptide is an opportunity to be a highly specific vehicle for drug delivery. It’s early days, but I’m aware of some fantastic research already underway at UOW and by our researchers in drug delivery, and I’m looking forward discussing the opportunities and linkages.”

>> Joel Castro, Andrea M Harrington, Sonia Garcia-Caraballo, Jessica Maddern, Luke Grundy, Jingming Zhang, Guy Page, Paul E Miller, David J Craik, David J Adams, Stuart M Brierley: α-Conotoxin Vc1.1 inhibits human dorsal root ganglion neuroexcitability and mouse colonic nociception via GABAB receptors, Gut, doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2015-310971.

With thanks to IHMRI’s Research Matters for permission to republish parts of this profile.