UOW molecular research hub to put city under the microscope

At the forefront: An artist's impression of UOW's $80 million Molecular Horizons research centre.

At the forefront: An artist's impression of UOW's $80 million Molecular Horizons research centre.

A three-metre tall, $7 million microscope which will help fight superbugs, Alzheimer’s and heart disease at a molecular level will be at the core of a futuristic medical research hub at the University of Wollongong.

Unveiled on Wednesday at Parliament House in Canberra, the $80 million Molecular Horizons building will be designed to put the university – and city – at the forefront of biomedical research.

To be built next year at UOW’s main campus, it will house about $25 million worth of microscopes and lab equipment, including a one-tonne Titan Krios: the world’s most powerful biological research microscope.

One of a handful in the world and only the second – but most advanced – in Australia, the huge “cryo-electron” microscope allows researchers to analyse frozen protein molecules to get a clearer and closer picture of human cells.

A clearer view: Sharper vision of tiny molecules will allow for better cures, says Prof van Oijen. Photos: Paul Jones

A clearer view: Sharper vision of tiny molecules will allow for better cures, says Prof van Oijen. Photos: Paul Jones

Internationally renowned molecular scientist, Professor Antoine van Oijen said this would pave the way for multiple health and medical breakthroughs, as it would allow scientists to generate 3D pictures of the most complex molecules inside human cells.

This will allow us with much sharper vision, literally with much sharper vision, to see how these molecules work and make significant advances … and come up with better cures. - Professor Antoine van Oijen

“Almost whichever disease you would come up with, including Alzheimer’s, cardiac disease and cancer, you always have to be able to visualise what these molecules look like,” he said

“One particular interest we have here at UOW is antibiotic resistance, this is a problem that is becoming bigger and bigger: so how do we deal with these superbugs with a lack of antibiotics that are likely not to last for much longer?”

“[If we can] understand how these bacterial proteins look, we may be able to target them and come up with better antibiotics.”

A second, smaller microscope – the first of its kind in Australia, called Talos Arctica – will be installed in an existing building in the coming months to allow researchers to begin fighting diseases before the building’s planned opening date in 2019.

The building will be the UOW’s largest-ever self-funded research investment, with all money for the project coming from the university’s own coffers.

According to a university spokesman, cash for the project has come from “capital reserves” and has also been freed up from the long-term private licencing of its student accommodation portfolio.

In 2014, the university announced it would licence its ntire student accommodation portfolio to an international consortium, Living + Learning Partners, for 39 years.

Microscopes to put city in the spotlight

Under the microscope: Professor Nick Dixon will lead research at the hub, which will use "revolutionary" technology.

Under the microscope: Professor Nick Dixon will lead research at the hub, which will use "revolutionary" technology.

Scientists and drug researchers will travel from around the world to visit the University of Wollongong’s new research hub, according to the scientists who will lead the $80 million Centre for Molecular and Life Sciences.

Biological chemistry Professor Nick Dixon said Australian and international researchers from other institutions would be able to bring microscopic samples to be analysed by powerful multi-million dollar microscopes in the Wollongong hub.

“There are also opportunities for commercial development,” he said.

“Companies travel all round the world at the moment to use these microscopes, wherever they can get time, because there are so few of them in the market.”

Likewise, Professor Antoine van Oijen said scientists would be “flying into Wollongong from around the world”.

He said collaboration between the university’s medical research strands – all located in one part of the campus – could allow the city to become home to biotech start-up businesses.

“I think having this hub for this exciting aspect of molecular life sciences will hopefully also act as a catalyst for other activity,” he said.

“If you think bigger picture about the economy of the Illawarra, I personally see biotechnology really as a potential future direction where new and exciting things can happen.”

The building will be coupled with a new degree – a Bachelor of Bionanotechnology combining biology, physics and chemistry and aimed an “understanding and controlling life at a molecular level”. It will welcome its first cohort in 2017.

“We will be able to use this fantastic infrastructure to educate the youngest generation of scientists that we have on campus,” he said.

Video: University of Wollongong

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