A human systems biology centre for Sydney

_MG_8059“We’ll be able to ask individual immune cells where they’ve been and who they’ve been talking to…”

The University of Sydney and The Centenary Institute will establish the Ramaciotti Centre for Human Systems Biology in 2014 following the announcement last night of the $1 million Ramaciotti Biomedical Research Award.

The award was made to the Centenary Institute’s Prof Barbara Fazekas de St Groth and her colleagues Prof Nicholas King, University of Sydney and Dr Adrian Smith, Centenary Institute. Prof Fazekas is also Assistant Director of the Centenary Institute.

“At the heart of the Centre will be a unique technology that will allow us to study millions of individual white blood cells and reveal where they’ve been and who they’ve been talking to,” says Prof Fazekas.

She and her colleagues have been investigating how regulatory T-cells regulate our immune system and prevent autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease. These regulatory T-cells form complex networks whose functions within the body can be understood by the molecules they express. Existing technology can track up to 15-20 molecules simultaneously.

The Centre will buy Australia’s first CyTOF (cytometry by time of flight) mass spectrometer which can track up to 100 different cellular processes simultaneously in a thousand cells each second. It uses rare earth metals (lanthanides) to label biological molecules, overcoming the bandwidth limitations of the current fluorescence-based technology. Most importantly, it will also support a staff of technical experts to develop the analysis techniques that are vital to ensuring the quality of the data and to maximise outcomes through the integration of cytometry data with clinical, genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, kinomic and medical imaging data. Ramaciotti Centres covering many of these technologies have already been established in NSW with the support of previous Biomedical Research Awards.

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Prof Fazekas and her colleagues expect that their work will also lead to potential drug targets for improved approaches to allergies, organ transplant, vaccines and cancer therapy.

But that’s not all. Prof Fazekas is determined to ensure that the equipment and expertise of the new Centre is freely available to the wider NSW research community. They already have the support of many NSW research organisations including the University of New South Wales, Anzac Institute, Garvan Institute, Westmead Millennium Institute, Royal Prince Alfred, Concord and Westmead Hospitals. The Centre will also collaborate with an engineering group at Macquarie University to develop new labelling reagents for the CyTOF technology.

Prof Fazekas says, “We already have proposals from researchers who plan to use the Centre to explore:

  • How individual human melanoma cells change as they migrate away from a tumour
  • How cells become cancerous in response to UV radiation and potential new drugs to treat this
  • The differences between the individual cells in a breast cancer tumour
  • How viruses such as herpes and measles infect nerve cells and the damage that’s caused when our bodies respond.”

_MG_8070“We deeply appreciate the support of the Ramaciotti Foundation,” says Professor Mathew Vadas, Director of the Centenary Institute. “We and the University of Sydney are delighted to be the most recent in a long line of beneficiaries of Vera Ramaciotti’s decision to sell the Theatre Royal in 1970 and invest the proceeds in a Foundation to support research.”

“We also congratulate Doug Hilton, the Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, the winner of the $50,000 Ramaciotti Medal for Excellence in Biomedical Research. His impact as a researcher and research leader has been and continues to be profound.”

Full media release here.