Life as we know it: ANU Symposium demonstrates potential of in vitro science

22 April 2016


They say there were some things man was never meant to tamper with.

But could the advent of synthetic chemical life herald the beginning of unforeseen medical breakthroughs?

A conference held at the Australian National University this week has focused on the advances of in vitro science, or the replication of chemical processes from living organisms in test tubes.

The event offered the opportunity to hear some of the field's leading scientists talk about the possibility of generating life on a molecular level.

However, that depends on the definition of "alive".

"There's generally seven requirements of life to say something's living, and the most obvious of them is that things grow and divide," says Dr Damien Hall, a senior research fellow at ANU.

"I'm working on a thing called an amyloid, which is a protein on a molecular level."

Much like a virus, an amyloid does not have all seven properties of life.

However, it still can grow, divide and mutate, a few of the properties which categorise something as "alive".

"I study these things because they come into everyday life; they're responsible for diseases like Alzheimer's and in another more virulent form, they're responsible for things like Mad Cow's Disease," said Dr Hall.

This means these biological molecules could be used to counteract the effects of these illnesses.

"Doing it for Alzheimer's is probably the world focus at the moment," said Dr Hall of the potential applications, "and especially in Australia it's a big focus because the government is actually dedicating resources to it".

Also speaking was Professor Richard Callaghan, who is conducting research into overcoming cancer resistance to chemotherapy.

The associate professor at the ANU research school of biology is investigating how cancer cells protect themselves against chemotherapy drugs.

"It's a mechanism that's common not only to cancer, but to antibiotic infections such as malaria and many other of these horrible diseases," said Professor Callaghan.

"It exists normally in the cells, but at very low levels, and performs an important job: it's a protectant."

Normally this mechanism is a useful function for healthy cells.

However, in the case of cancer, it can inhibit the efficacy of chemotherapy.

"Ultimately our research would be to design drugs to block this process, so then the anticancer drugs can march on into the cancer cells and kill them," he said.

"In order to find the drug to block the protein, you need to know what it looks like."

"The analogy might be, to fix a car, you've got to know what components are in the engine."

"So we're trying to figure out the structure of this protein, what its components are, what each of the components does and how they work together."

The symposium was held in honour of Professor Allen Minton, a biochemist visiting from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the United States.

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