Ferrier’s focus on the future

A team of scientists from the Ferrier Research Institute has set its sights on finding a safe and effective treatment for a group of rare but severe diseases.

Gary Evans, Phillip Rendle, Bradley Williams

Three different projects focused on solving a variety of problems, which are being led by scientists at Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute, have been awarded a total of $3 million in Government funding to develop their commercial potential.

The Ferrier Research Institute specialises in carbohydrate chemistry and is focused on bringing better drugs, materials and other technology to the world.

The scientists, Professor Gary Evans, Dr Phillip Rendle and Professor Bradley Williams, are each receiving $1 million over two years from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) through its Smart Ideas science investment round for 2015.

“New Zealand now has an incredibly competitive science funding system, with the smallest approval rates for proposals in the world. The major success by our Ferrier scientists and their research collaborators in this round speaks to the potential impact of the proposed projects and the quality of the ideas.”

Hope for Huntington’s

Dr Phillip Rendle’s research aims to produce a safe and effective treatment for some or all of the nine polyglutamine diseases, the most well-known of which is Huntington’s. These diseases are genetically inherited and rare, affecting around 1 in 10,000 people worldwide.

Dr Rendle says there is currently no cure for these diseases, just treatments for the symptoms, which typically emerge in mid-life and get progressively worse with age.

“I want to find a treatment using dendrimers, which are molecules that look like a heavily branched tree. Polyglutamine diseases are neurodegenerative diseases caused by the abnormal interaction of inherited mutated proteins. Our aim is to use dendrimers to disrupt this interaction to delay the onset age, which would effectively be a cure.”

Dr Rendle says he’ll be working with Professor Russell Snell from the University of Auckland, an expert in Huntington’s disease who will conduct biological testing of the materials being developed in the project.

Reducing infections from surgical implants

Professor Gary Evans is developing materials that will reduce infections which sometimes require orthopaedic implants—such as hip or other joint replacements—to be removed.

Biofilms are produced by microorganisms and form a protective layer that adheres to surfaces. In the case of orthopaedic implants, the majority of post-surgical infections are caused by bacteria growing within a biofilm, which develops on the implant. Where a biofilm is allowed to form, these bacteria are protected from the patient’s immune system and antibiotic treatments.

Professor Evans says he and his team (which includes researchers from Callaghan Innovation and University of Otago) will try to engineer entirely new materials through coating titanium, which is used in the majority of modern orthopaedic implants, with molecules that stop biofilm formation.

“While removal of a joint is only necessary in 1-2% of cases, when that’s applied to 3.7 million such surgeries a year in the United States alone, preventing those infections would have a big impact and save a lot of money,” he says. “As the population ages and expects to be more mobile with the help of joint replacements, the issue is only going to become more pronounced.”

Smoother sailing?

A new kind of paint that would stop barnacles and other organisms from accumulating on the hulls of marine vessels has the potential to revolutionise the shipping industry, according to Professor Bradley Williams.

“The growth of seaweed, barnacles and the like on ships is a major problem for marine industries. It creates lots of resistance, which means slower ships and requires as much as 30% more fuel to maintain shipping speeds for on-time delivery—that’s hard on both the financial bottom line and the environment. The ships need to be dry-docked while the encrustation is removed, which takes time and money. And if a ship is wrecked, the biocides which are currently used in paints to ward off encrustation end up leaching into the ecosystem.

“Mine is an extremely simple idea that brings together existing scientific principles in a new way. But the way this idea intends to solve the problem and the fact it won’t have any impact on the environment means it has the potential to be a game changer for paint manufacturers in the shipping industry.”