The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute was established in 2007 as the sixth research institute of the University. Formerly Directed by Australian of the Year (2006) and co-founder of the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine, Professor Ian Frazer, the Institute is host to over 200 researchers, students and support staff. Currently headed by Director, Professor Matt Brown, the UQDI is based at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and Institute researchers seek to discover the cellular and molecular basis of diseases in an effort to better understand how diseases are formed, and the best preventative measure against the conception of the disease.
Researchers at UQDI are investigating a wide spectrum of disease states across cancer, viral and bacterial infection and autoimmune diseases.
Research can be grouped into the following themes:
Further information about The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute is available on their website
Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a form of epithelial cancer. It is the primary form of head and neck cancer and the second most common form of skin cancer. As with all cancers, patient survival for SCC is determined in part by the rate at which the cancer cells proliferate. Efforts to combat SCC have focused on cellular trafficking. Both cancerous and non-cancerous cells have proteins on their surfaces that are involved in communication, or ‘signaling’, within and between cells. The internalisation of these cell surface receptors, by a process termed endocytosis, is a major mechanism for the regulation of signaling and plays an important role in the level of cellular proliferation.
One such cell surface receptor is epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR). EGFR over-expressed in tumours and for this reason significant work has gone into the development of anti-EGFR inhibitors such as the monoclonal antibody Cetuximab. However, patients appear to respond to Cetuximab with a puzzling degree of variability, which makes treatment predictions and recommendations very difficult for oncologists.
Dr Fiona Simpson, a researcher at the UQ Diamantina Institute, specialises in cell signaling. She believes that the reason for this variability is due to changes in how SCC cells internalise EGFR. In collaboration with oncologists at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, she has demonstrated that both EGFR internalisation and its trafficking within the cell are dysregulated in head and neck SCC.
The group has subsequently developed a method to directly assay EGFR trafficking in whole human tumours in order to determine whether this dysregulation correlates with variable patient responses to anti-EGFR inhibitor treatment. This is the first time EGFR trafficking has been imaged in live human tumours. Moreover, understanding this correlation should provide the basis for the development of a clinical assay that will allow informed and targeted treatment options for SCC patients and could eventually lead to improvements in treatment response rates.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a painful and debilitating inflammatory condition affecting approximately 1% of the world's population. RA is caused by self-antigen-specific autoimmunity, wherein the body's immune cells do not discern 'self' from 'non-self' and consequently attack the body's tissues. While existing drugs are effective for the majority of patients, these therapeutics generally do not induce drug-free remission and thus require lifelong administration. Moreover, about 30% of RA patients do not achieve optimal control of joint inflammation and may progress to irreversible deformity. As such, there is a recognised need for more effective treatments.
UQDI Group Leader and Australian Research Council Future Fellowship holder, Professor Ranjeny Thomas, is a clinical rheumatologist interested in the molecular basis of autoimmune diseases. In 2003, while conducting research on a class of immune cells called dendritic cells, she discovered these cells had a ‘tolerance switch’ that could be selectively modified. Because dendritic cells play a central role in distinguishing ‘self ‘from ‘non-self’, Professor Thomas tested whether dendritic cells could be modified to restore ‘self’-tolerance. She treated the dendritic cells with an inhibitory drug, which switches off the expression of select genes involved in inflammation andadded an antigen specific to RA. In a mouse model of the condition, treatment with these modified dendritic cells was very promising: the RA immune response and the arthritis were suppressed. In essence, the dual-treatment behaved as a vaccine against RA. Professor Thomas and her team will complete a phase I clinical trial of modified dendritic cells in RA in early 2011.
Professor Thomas and her colleagues have since found a way to package the inhibitor-antigen combination into a liposomal nanoparticle, which delivers the treatment to cells. In collaboration with Dendright Pty Ltd, a biotech spin-out founded by Professor Thomas, nanoparticles containing curcumin (derived from the turmeric spice) and RA antigen are now being developed as a novel therapeutic for the early treatment and prevention of RA. A phase I clinical trial is planned for 2012. In addition to their potential as an effective treatment of RA, Curcusomes represent a platform technology that could provide the basis of similar treatments for other autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes. Professor Thomas has an extensive collaborative network across the University of Queensland and greater PAH research community, leading the autoimmune disease-focussed research division of the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute.
The UQDI is home to the UQ Centre for Clinical Genomics, the most sophisticated and largest human genomic facility in the southern hemisphere. The Centre undertakes cutting-edge genetics and genomics studies including:
The research capability of the UQ Centre for Clinical Genomics is unrivalled in Australia. It houses state-of-the-art sequencing infrastructure including GAII and HiSeq 2000 sequencers managed by a strong team of geneticists and bioinformaticians. The Centre provides an extremely valuable resource for the Australian genetics community and provides training and career development opportunities for young researchers who would otherwise have to seek career opportunities overseas.