June 2, 2016

Engaging the public with imaging science

In a classic Melbourne lane, behind a classic Melbournian café, Imaging CoE Director and AI Stephanie Gras joined forces to add a little imaging science to the Melbourne Knowledge Week 2016 festival.

A diverse and interested crowd sat atop wooden pews in “the church” — hidden at the back of £1000 Bend — and they listened intently to James and Stephanie explain how imaging technologies are accelerating innovations in health.

The talks began by focusing on immunology and imaging, and ended with a call for further funding to ensure that science, especially fundamental science, is safeguarded well into the future. It was truly wonderful to have an engaged, varied group of people take time out of their days to sit, listen and learn about the research being done here in Melbourne.

James began his story with an overview of the Imaging CoE – its roots, its inception and the broader reasons for its existence.

“Our Centre of Excellence hopes to address fundamental questions in immunity by utilising state-of-the-art imaging technologies,” he said.

And then, like all good storytellers, he gave the audience a history lesson followed by a bit of a laugh.

Amid sparrows flying to and fro, James explained to the audience how our innate immune system functions, how it is a very delicate beast and how our bodies can be both harmed and protected by it.

“In order to understand the function of the hole-punching immune proteins in our immune systems, we need to be able to see them,” James said. “And in order to visualise their shape in as much detail as possible, we use two key techniques: Cryo-Electron Microscopy and X-ray crystallography.”

These techniques help researchers to build better pictures of pore formation, while the pictures enable them to design and develop inhibitors to stop the proteins from punching holes. This is especially important in the case of an overactive immune response – the root cause of autoimmune disorders like paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH). You can read more about the CoE’s work on PNH here: http://imagingcoe.org/half-million-dollar-tick.

James wrapped up the discussion with a toilet joke, leaving the renowned immunologist, Stephanie Gras, to take over. She described one of the Imaging CoE’s most recent successes involving influenza.

She asked: “What if we didn’t have to thwart our immune response by developing drugs? What if, instead, we could teach our immune system to recognise mutating strains of the flu?”

She was of course talking about the second immune system we have – namely, the adaptive immune system comprised of T cells and B cells. To find out more about one of the Centre’s recent research outputs in this field, along with collaborators from Australia, the US and Europe, check out imagingcoe.org/one-stop-flu-shot.

Stephanie, who has developed a reputation as the Imaging CoE’s ‘paparazzi-dodging immunologist’, relished the opportunity to engage with the public. “I was somewhat surprised by how interested and keen they all were; it reminds me just how important the work we do is,” she said. “It was the same last week for the Day of Immunology. So many interested people were excited by what I get to do every day. It’s humbling.”

The International Day of Immunology fell on Friday 29 April (a couple of days before MKW 2016 started), and the Imaging CoE sponsored the Melbourne efforts. For instance, Stephanie showed people around some of Monash University’s facilities core to her discoveries and CI Dale Godfrey spoke to a full house at the Doherty Institute in the evening.

The Imaging CoE is determined to connect experts with curious minds. It is committed to engaging with the broader public and eager to encourage them to explore, question and further develop their scientific mindsets.