Peering deep into space and making red blood cells – not at the same time!

In the studio on Sunday the 23rd of October were Dr Shane, Dr Alicia, Dr Adam and myself, Dr Krystal

Do mobile phones cause cancer? The newest and biggest study on mobile phone users and cancer has found no evidence for increased risk of tumours in the brain or central nervous system with mobile phone useage. The study, published in the British Medical Journal, followed more than 350,000 mobile phone users for over 10 years, providing the best evidence to date that there is no link between cancer and mobile phone use.

When will there be a vaccine against malaria? The leading vaccine in development is currently being tested in clinical trials and has shown to decrease the risk of severe malaria by 45% in African children. This quite a low level of protection for a vaccine, but considering that there are more than 250 million cases of malaria each year, this vaccine could play an important role in reducing death and disease.

Are teenagers’ brains always the same? Research from a team at University College London has shown that intelligence can rise and fall throughout teenage years. Changes in IQ happened alongside changes in brain structure throughout adolescence, suggesting that this is a crucial period of development for young minds.

How do pandas digest all that bamboo? Analysis of panda poo has helped solve the mystery of how panda bears digest the tough fibers present in bamboo. Bacteria in the digestive system of pandas (and detected in their poo) produce enzymes that breakdown the cellulose fibres present in bamboo, allowing these bears to enjoy their herbivore diet.

Can we ever repair spinal cord injuries? A new cell transplantation technique is being trialled in humans to see if Schwann cells taken from the peripheral nervous system could be used to repair damaged nerves in the spinal cord. This procedure uses a patient’s own cells for the transplant, and avoids the problems of organ rejection and does not rely on controversial approaches such as using embryonic stem cells.

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Our guest in the studio today was astrophysicist Professor Rachel Webster, from the University of Melbourne. Her research harnesses the effects of gravitational microlensing, to look up into the sky and search for objects located far far away from earth. This astronomical effect was predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which predicted that light from a distant star would bend when it goes past a massive object in the sky. Microlensing acts like an additional lens on the telescope, magnifying the light signal and allowing scientists to peer 10 to 100 times further into space. Professor Webster is also setting up a new school’s telescope program in Melbourne, which will see 10 brand new “all singing all dancing” telescopes given to high schools who wouldn’t nrmally have the resources for this type of equipment. This three year project aims to have viewing nights at schools around 6 times a year, so that students can see and think about what’s happening in the universe.

Today was my first show back in the studio for about eight weeks, as I’ve been in the UK learning how to make red blood cells from adult stem cells – and it was amazing! The process starts by using adult stem cells that circulate in the blood, and taken from normal adult blood donors. red-blood-cells

Around a million of these stem cells are put into a petri dish, and fed with a complex mixture of chemicals that provide all the signals to instruct the stem cells to grow and morph into red blood cells. My favourite part was about two weeks into the experiment when the cells started expressing the hemoglobin, the oxgyen-carrying molecule which is red, and so the cells started to turn pink! And why was I doing all this? Well, I’m a malaria researcher, and malaria lives inside red blood cells in the body. Using this stem cell approach I can make designer homes for different types of malaria like Plasmodium vivax, which prefers to live in young red blood cells.

The way medical research is funded in Australia has been shown to be an expensive and somewhat random process. A study by Professor Nic Graves, a health economist from the University of Technology Queensland has shown that the total cost of the $350 million dollar National Health and Medical Research Council grant process was $47.9 million, with most of this cost being the time spent by individuals preparing and reviewing submissions. This insight into the inefficient nature of the grant system is very informative for the upcoming strategic review of health and medical research in Australia.