Cross-Tasman collaboration between Australian and New Zealand researchers has shed light on a protein involved in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, gastric cancer and melanoma.

Using the Australian Synchrotron, a team of researchers led by Dr Peter Mace from the University of Otago, in collaboration with Australian scientists investigated a protein called Apoptosis signal-regulating kinase 1 (ASK 1) with the results published today in leading international journal PNAS.

Dr Mace says the protein plays an important role in controlling how a cell responds to cell damage, and can push the cell towards a process of programmed cell death for the good of the body, if damage to a cell is too great.

“We now know a lot more about how ASK1 gets turned on and off – this is important because in diseases such as Parkinson’s, stomach cancer and melanoma, there can be either too much or too little ASK1 activity,” he said.

The ASK1 protein gets its name from an ancient Greek word meaning “falling off” – apoptosis – and is used to describe the process of programmed dying of cells – of the body actively killing them – rather than their loss by injury. 

Researchers found that ASK1 has unexpected parts to its structure, that help control how the protein is turned on, and that an entire family of ASK kinases share these features.

Dr Mace says that the new findings add to our understanding of how cells can trigger specific responses to different threats or damage encountered, such as oxidants, which damage the body’s tissues by causing inflammation.

He adds that kinases are excellent targets for developing new drugs because they have a “pocket” in their structure that such compounds can bind to, but to develop better drugs we need to understand far more about how they are controlled. This is the goal of several projects in his lab, he says.

The research team determined ASK1’s molecular structure through crystallography studies – using the Synchrotron to see exactly what it is made up of – and performed other biochemical experiments to better understand the protein.

Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies, (below) Principal Scientist of the Macromolecular Crystallography and Micro Crystallography beamlines at the Australian Synchrotron, helped to collect data critical to the project. 

Dr Tom Caradoc-Davies on the MX beamline at the Australian Synchrotron

 “Using the Synchrotron’s MX Beamlines, we collected data from difficult samples, to help solve questions the research team had about the structure of the protein,” Dr Caradoc-Davies said.

“This is a great example of how regular access to the Synchrotron’s facilities can help move a project along more rapidly than otherwise would be the case, where it could take many years more for a team to find an answer, or they may not be able to find one at all.”

The study is a collaboration between Otago researchers and scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne, and at the Australian Synchrotron. 

Access to this ANSTO landmark research infrastructure was enabled by the New Zealand Synchrotron Group, which is coordinated by the Royal Society of New Zealand and supported by all New Zealand universities in partnership with the Australian and New Zealand Governments.

The Australian Synchrotron is crucial to many other research projects from Otago and throughout New Zealand.

The study was supported by a Royal Society of New Zealand Rutherford Discovery Fellowship and grants from the University of Otago, the Victorian State Government and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

It has been a year like no other at the Australian Synchrotron; 2016 saw the securing of $520 million over ten years in operational funding in December 2015 and the transfer of ownership to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in July 2016, while hosting 5,700 visits by researchers from across Australia, New Zealand and around the world.

In a year that also saw celebrations of ten years since ‘First Light’, the landmark research infrastructure continued to empower researchers and industry to problem solve and innovate, supporting the delivery of real life benefits including durable, rapidly-printable electronics; next-generation batteries that run on sea water; non-invasive brain electrodes to help overcome paralysis; and ‘stainless magnesium’ that could herald a transport revolution.

Looking forward to a new era as part of ANSTO’s world-class suite of landmark research infrastructure, the future looks even brighter. In 2017 and beyond additional capacity and new capability will be realised through nationwide partnerships under the BR-GHT expansion program, enabling the rapid progression of research by harnessing the power of eight new synchrotron techniques.

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Left: Dr Wenchao Huang with his PhD supervisor, Associate  Professor Chris McNeill from the Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering at Monash University; right: an organic solar cell; inset: the Australian Synchrotron Stephen Wilkins Thesis Award medal.

 

A young Melbourne researcher has helped lay the groundwork for an environmentally-friendly electronics revolution, defining the complex chemistry that could see affordable, translucent, printable solar panels moulded and shaped to adorn home windows and office towers.

 

Dr Wenchao Huang today received the 2016 Australian Synchrotron Stephen Wilkins Thesis Medal for his research at Monash University into organic photovoltaic (OPV) devices, exploring how critical microstructural features evolve during the preparation of cutting-edge, clear and pliable solar panels, which are tipped to surpass older, silicon-based panels in value and performance over the next decade.

 

Associate Professor Chris McNeill from the Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering at Monash University says Dr Huang’s research balanced the activity of two key solar panel components.

 

‘In the active layer of a polymer solar cell you have the polymer donor – which absorbs sunlight and generates electron-hole pairs – and the fullerene acceptor, which transports electrons to electrodes.

 

‘Under different circumstances, the polymer can become crystallised, which makes charge transport and light absorption more efficient, but reduces the probability that electrons will be successfully transferred to the fullerene, which has a negative effect on power conversion efficiency; experimenting with heat treatment and additive solvents, Wenchao used the Australian Synchrotron’s Soft X-Ray Spectroscopy (SXR) beamline to find a workable balance that we believe will make OPV’s more commercially viable.’

 

Dr Huang, who has since winged his way to new opportunities in the United States at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the key to bringing next-generation solar cells into our homes and workplaces is maximising the power conversion efficiency.

 

‘Silicon has had a huge head start – coming into play in the 1950s while organic solar cells appeared in the mid-1990s – yet commercialised single-crystal silicon solar cells convert around 18-20 per cent of energy from the sun into power, next to 12 per cent for organic.

 

‘We anticipate it will be only years, not decades, until organic takes the lead, costing around half or one third to produce.’

 

Associate Professor McNeill says the team at the Australian Synchrotron provided crucial molecular analysis as broader techniques of the ongoing research were developed, which could impact Australia’s green energy future.

 

‘We believe the upscaling of OPV’s will enable faster development of next-generation solar panels and electronics that are flexible, malleable and more affordable, beyond the limitations of bulky silicon-based electronics.

 

‘The ability to incorporate solar panels into clear windows on houses, skyscrapers and stadiums is a very attractive prospect as Australia works towards a sustainable energy mix that maintains output and reliability while lowering carbon emissions.’

 

Professor Andrew Peele, Director of the Australian Synchrotron and ANSTO Victoria, says through research opening up new pathways for innovation that deliver real life benefits, Dr Huang is a worthy recipient of the medal, which is named in honour of synchrotron pioneer Stephen Wilkins.

 

‘Science is about turning big ideas into innovations that change our world, and Wenchao has embodied this spirit by tackling a complex technical issue using synchrotron science in a way that could revolutionise affordable, renewable energy.

 

‘The thesis medal honours Stephen Wilkins’ creativity and his devotion to nurturing the next generation of scientists, and we wish Wenchao well as he builds his career in the United States.’

 

The Australian Synchrotron Stephen Wilkins Thesis Medal is awarded annually to the PhD student at an Australian or New Zealand university judged to have completed the most outstanding thesis of the past two years, and whose work was undertaken at and acknowledges the Australian Synchrotron or the Australian National Beamline Facility.