A Closer Look at The New Frontier of Medical Research

Professor Katharina Gaus ( right) and postdoctoral student Dr Elvis Pandzic with one of the super-resolution microscopes at UNSW's Centre in Single Molecule Science.) PHOTO: Grant Turner
Date Published :
Monday, February 15, 2016

When Professor Katharina Gaus was at University she was taught an important law of physics that outlined the maximum resolution of optical microscopy. This limit of 0.02 millimetres meant that while it was possible to see the outlines of a cell with a microscope, the internal goings-on of a cell remained a blur. Now - after developing a microscope using 2014 Nobel Prize winning research - Professor Gaus and her team are breaking the laws of physics and making important steps towards what could be the next major breakthrough in the fight against cancer.

Using new single molecule microscopes Professor Gaus - who is head of the EMBL Australia Node in Single Molecule Science at UNSW's Lowy Cancer Research Centre - is opening up a whole new frontier of medical research by seeing single molecules inside a cell for the first time.

“Before this technology, studying cells with a microscope was a bit was a bit like trying to understand traffic by using Google Earth. Now it’s like we are actually walking on the earth. Our feet are on the road and we can see the traffic. We can experience it and get a very different perspective of the chaos that is going on in a cell,” she said.

Part of UNSW’s Single Molecule Science initiative, Professor Gaus and her team are currently using this technology to focus on the decision-making processes of T-cells; trying to figure out how and why T-cells initiate an immune response.

“T-cells have an amazing ability to make decisions. They are the brains of the immune system. They decide whether or not a particular protein is derived from a cancer and therefore whether the cancer should be killed. If we can further understand this process by studying the T- cells we could figure out why T –cells miss some tumours,” she said.

Knowledge of how and why T-cells activate an immune response could, in the long term, lead to the development of drugs with T-cell receptors able to attack cancer - and this would change the world.  In fact, in 2013, the journal Science named the process of using a patient’s own immune system to kill cancer (cancer Immunotherapy) as breakthrough of the year. The first step for this therapy to become a reality however, according to Professor Gaus, is to find out why, in certain cancers, the immune system doesn’t do its job and that’s what her research is all about.

Having spent 2015 setting up her lab and gathering some of the best and brightest minds in the field, Professor Gaus’ EMBL Australia Node in Single Molecule Science is now fully operational.

 “For the first time we can actually see the microscopes being used and everything at work. It’s really exciting to think about what we will find. In fact it is this possibility of discovery that gets me out of bed each morning. It is an immense privilege to go down a path no one has gone down before,” she said.

“I am a firm believe that the history of mankind is a history of discovery and I have the privilege to stand on the shoulder of some really big giants. It’s an incredibly privileged position to be in and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

Contact Name: 
Emma O'Neill, Marketing and Communications Officer, UNSW Medicine
T: +61 (2) 9385 2672

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