Professor Rob Parton
Professor Rob Parton

28 January 2009

Two University of Queensland scientists, including one from the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, have been awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Australia Fellowships valued at a total of $8 million.

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.

UQ received 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 Wayne Hall of the School of Population Health received the other Fellowship, which he will use to investigate the ethical issues raised by genetic research and addiction and new forms of drug treatment that help people with addictions to become and remain abstinent.

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 the previous round of funding, UQ received both Australia Fellowships on offer, with Dr Matt Cooper moving to the IMB from the United Kingdom after being awarded an Australia Fellowship, and Professor Wendy Hoy of UQ's Centre for Chronic Disease receiving the award to support her research in Indigenous health.

Media contacts: Bronwyn Adams, IMB Communications, 07 3346 2134 or 0418 575 247

Marlene McKendry, Faculty of Health Sciences, 07 3346 4713 or 0401 996 847 

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