Opinion: Science on the Swan takes us to the cutting edge of medical research

May 3, 2017

Professor Morrison says the Science on the Swan conference will drive discoveries for a better health future for the world.

Murdoch University Deputy Vice Chancellor – Research and Innovation, Professor David Morrison highlights the discoveries and cutting-edge research under way in one health, which are the focus of this year's Science on the Swan conference.

Seventy five per cent of newly emerging diseases in humans in the last 30 years have been spread to us from other species, including animals and insects.

Examples famously include Ebola from bats, Zika from mosquitoes and SARS from poultry.

Transmission of these diseases from animals to humans is influenced by population growth, including increasing encroachment into wildlife areas, climate change, intensification of animal production systems, lifestyle shifts and increased international travel and trade.

All of these factors have provided more opportunities for infectious agents to pass between animals and people.

Veterinarians, doctors and wildlife biologists are working together in an area of research known as one health to understand how these factors interact to increase the risk of emergent diseases that affect us all on a global scale.

The discoveries and cutting-edge research under way in one health are the focus of this year's Science on the Swan conference, WA's annual premier health and medical research meeting which draws international experts from all over the world to Perth.

The three-day conference will also profile some of WA's brightest and best scientific minds as they present their recent innovative research findings.

Yesterday, the conference was devoted to understanding the microbiome – the complex community of "good" and "bad" micro organisms that inhabit our bodies, including our gut and lungs and skin.

Facilitated by advances in sequencing technologies, it is now feasible to examine the composition of these complex microbial communities, in order to understand their effect on humans, wildlife and ecosystems.

For example, in infectious diseases that infect the gut, the microbiota are now known to be active participants in preventing and sometimes in driving disease, depending on the state of the system.

If beneficial missing microbes, such as probiotics, are added back to the intestine it may force out the "bad" microbes, rebalance the system and prevent disease.

Targeted approaches to rehabilitating the intestinal ecosystem with new therapeutics and diagnostics is therefore an exciting prospect for the future. Early trials treating recurrent Clostridium difficile infections, a bacterium that can cause diarrhoea and sometimes severe and fatal inflammation of the lining of the gut, have been very successful which is cause for realistic hope.

Today, we will be focusing on parasites and other infectious diseases and the emerging science of personalised medicine, where the treatment of infectious disease is customised for an individual patient based on his or her genetic profile.

The same analytical work helps us understand how and why individuals respond to the environment in different ways, resulting in some cases in severe hypersensitivity, as is the case with allergies.

Drugs designed to take advantage of individual responses can both improve treatments and prevent adverse reactions to treatments.

On the final day we will focus on technologies such as stem cells and regenerative medicine which involves the process of replacing, engineering or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs to restore or establish normal function.

We have learnt much from studying different species such as, for example, the regenerative capacity of the visual system in some reptiles and the ability to regrow limbs from others.

This year's Science on the Swan conference – a collaborative venture between WA's universities, medical research institutes and the government departments of health and science -will again highlight how research and technology go hand-in-hand and are being used to improve the health of people and animals in WA and worldwide.

We will be focusing on parasites and other infectious diseases and the emerging science of personalised medicine, where the treatment of infectious disease is customised for an individual patient based on his or her genetic profile.

A version of this opinion piece was printed in the West Australian on Wednesday, 3 May 2017.

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Media contact: Luke McManus
Tel: (08) 9360 2491  |  Mobile: 0400 297 221  |  Email: L.McManus@murdoch.edu.au
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Comments (One response)

ANDREW TAGGART May 9, 2017

This was a great event. Well done David. The new minister for Health Roger Cook was very impressed and engaged.

Murdoch and One Health will drive much of our research agenda in the years ahead.

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