Breaking through boundaries

Discovering our origins, kicking cancer, child development, cool-tech engineering and looking ahead

New drugs to combat cancer, a ‘game-changing’ renewable battery made from salt, and a remarkable discovery that changed our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution.

These are just a few of the exciting research breakthroughs from UOW in 2016.

From humble beginnings training engineers, metallurgists and industrial chemists for the heavy industrial plants in the region, 65 years later UOW is at the forefront of cutting-edge research developments, with 98 per cent of our disciplines rated at or above world standard*.

Discovering our origins

In 2003, UOW researchers were part of an international team that uncovered a new species of tiny people that would rewrite history books, capture imaginations around the world, and go on to be dubbed ‘the scientific find of the century’.

Homo floresiensis, affectionately dubbed the ‘hobbit’, stood at just one metre tall and lived on the island of Flores until fairly recently.

In March this year, UOW geochronologists hit international headlines when they announced revised dates for the hobbit skeleton. It is now thought she lived about 50,000 years ago, suggesting hobbits may have lived alongside modern humans in Indonesia, which begs the question – did we have anything to do with their disappearance?

In June, UOW announced two more remarkable hobbit discoveries. The first: researchers at the Centre for Archaeological Science had uncovered ancient 700,000-year-old hobbit remains, quashing once and for all any doubters who believed Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human. The find has important implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution in Southeast Asia.

The second: they had uncovered crucial new evidence that suggested modern humans were using fire in the hobbits’ cave, Liang Bua, 41,000 years ago, narrowing the time gap between the two species at the site. The find was among the earliest evidence of modern humans in Southeast Asia and researchers are now focused on finding more evidence that can narrow that gap again in the hope we can answer the question – did modern humans contribute to the hobbit’s demise?

Kicking cancer

Earlier this year, researchers at UOW and the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute (IHMRI) discovered a new class of molecules originally derived from sea snails that are showing promising results against multi-drug resistant cancers.

The molecules, called N-alkylisatins, killed 100 per cent of drug resistant cancer cells in the lab in just 48 hours. In comparison, a chemotherapy drug commonly used to treat breast cancer killed only 10 per cent of cells in the same time period.

N-alkylisatins proved particularly potent against colorectal, prostate and breast cancers, and work by targeting the skeleton of the cell, which is critical for a cell to continue. Currently in pre-clinical trial phase, the drugs could be available in 5 to 10 years, depending on funding and the success of the drugs in animal tests and eventually human trials.

In another potential cancer breakthrough, researchers at UOW’s Centre for Medical Radiation Physics have also been working on a simple and elegant solution for a serious issue: how to precisely measure the amount of radiation a patient receives during cancer treatment.

Despite the ongoing advances in radiotherapy cancer treatment, uncertainties in accurately targeting the radiation dosage required to adequately treat a tumour can result in malignant cells being missed or the patient being delivered too large a dose, killing healthy cells.

UOW’s ‘magic plate’ detector sits in the radiation path and before the x-ray beam hits the patient, records millisecond by millisecond a 2D map of the intensity of the radiation beams.


Child development

Last year, UOW officially launched Australia’s most sophisticated early childhood teaching, research and community engagement initiative, Early Start.

Since the launch, Early Start has embarked on a world-first study to boost the standard of early childhood teaching, starting with preschools in New South Wales.

As an alternative to expensive and time-consuming computerised ‘brain-training’ activities, the researchers have also developed a children’s book that boosts early executive functions.

The book, Quincey Quokka’s Quest, asks children to help the main character, Quincey Quokka, through a series of activities that require them to remember and control their thinking and behaviours.

Executive functions set the stage for school readiness, academic achievement, early literacy and numeracy skills, social and emotional competence as well as physical health. Deficiencies in executive functioning have been implicated in a number of developmental disorders, such as ADHD.

In another study published by neuroscientists at UOW and IHMRI this year, it was revealed that antipsychotic drug use in childhood could have significant long-term effects.

The researchers looked at the enduring impacts of three commonly prescribed antipsychotic drugs, Aripiprazole, Olanzapine and Risperidone, on the brains of young healthy rats.

They found long-term alterations to a number of adult behaviours, including changes to activity levels as well as changes in depressive-like behaviours and anxiety levels.

Cool-tech engineering

In a landmark proof-of-concept experiment, UOW researchers have used a handheld 3D printing pen to ‘draw’ human stem cells in freeform patterns with extremely high survival rates.

The device, developed out of collaboration between the UOW-based ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science researchers and orthopaedic surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne is designed to allow surgeons to sculpt customised cartilage implants during surgery.

Using a hydrogel bio-ink to carry and support living human stem cells, and a low-powered light source to solidify the ink, the pen delivers a cell survival rate in excess of 97 per cent.

In another exciting 3D printing development, in May it was announced that UOW would be a partner in a new training centre that will position Australia as a world-leader in 3D bioprinting for medical applications.

Additive bio-manufacturing, also known as 3D bio-printing, uses 3D printing technology to create medical implants, and is set to transform the foundations of manufacturing and medicine.

Particularly promising is the ability to develop personalised, customised medical treatments for patients. Recently, the team behind the new training centre 3D-printed a vertebral implant for a patient for severe back pain, and a custom titanium heel bone replacement.

From bio-printing to using 3D printing technologies to take surfing to the next level, researchers at UOW are creating custom-designed 3D printed surfboard fins that allow surfers to improve their performance in the water.

The project, part of UOW’s Global Challenges Program, aims to rethink current surf fin designs and manufacturing techniques in order to create new shapes, sizes and materials that are more efficient and tailored to the individual surfer’s needs and the waves they ride.

Looking ahead

An exciting $10.8 million project that will produce ‘game-changing’ sodium-ion battery technology to help drive increased use of renewable energy has just kicked off at UOW and is expected to be completed in early 2020.

In December 2016, UOW scientists and psychologists will start work on a landmark study to test whether omega-3s can reduce aggression in prisons. The $1.8 million study will span five years and include a 16-week randomised control trial in six prisons in New South Wales and South Australia.

Finally, UOW has just launched a new $80 million Molecular and Life Sciences facility, Molecular Horizons, dedicated to illuminating how life works at a molecular level and solving some of the biggest health challenges facing the world.

A $7 million ultra-high-resolution Titan Krios cryo-electron microscope – one of a handful in the world and only the second of its kind in Australia – will be the centrepiece of the initiative.

The extensive suite of technologies that will be housed at the Molecular Horizons facility, including the Titan Krios microscope, will attract scientists from all over Australia and the world to work collaboratively, using this rare and vital technology.

*Australian Research Council’s Excellence in Research for Australia ratings for 2015.