Researchers from Griffith University’s Eskitis Institute will soon roam the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in Cape York searching for natural products to form the basis of new medicines.

Terri Irwin extended the offer when she, and her children Bindi and Robert, visited the Eskitis Institute to learn more about Nature Bank and the Institute’s work with natural compounds which may hold the key to beating a range of diseases including cancer, malaria and TB.

“I am really excited that the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve can play a part in this,” Terri said.

“This Nature Bank collection is so important, not just for the work being done now, but also for in the future when we will be able to learn so much more than we can now.”

The researchers will be collecting plants to add to the Nature Bank collection of more than 45,000 samples drawn from plants, microorganisms and marine invertebrates from Australia, Malaysia, China and Papua New Guinea.

Unique opportunity

Director of the Eskitis Institute, Professor Ronald J Quinn AM, gratefully accepted the invitation to the Cape York Reserve which he said would allow researchers to collect samples at different times and seasons of the year.

“Through access to the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, and some of the plants and plant communities which are unique to this area of northern Australia, we will see a significant expansion and improvement of our Nature Bank collection,” Professor Quinn said.

“This will increase our opportunities to discover new drugs to combat cancer, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.”

The Irwin children, who learn through Distance Education, were accompanied by their teacher Ms Nicky Magnano and it was by no means a day off from learning.

Bindi learns in the lab

Bindi, who is in Year 10, was guided through the process of extracting compounds from the bark of the Mudjala plant by Dr Rohan Davis. This bush grows in coastal areas of northern Australia and has been used by an Aboriginal community in the Kimberleys as a source of pain relief. The Eskitis Institute is now supporting the community in their quest to develop a pain relieving gel to help with arthritis and muscle pain.

“It was a wonderful experience to work with Dr Rohan Davis,and visit the Eskitis Institute as their work is changing the world,” Bindi said.

“As a young person, I believe that it is extremely important to be involved in the future well-being of both people and our planet. I admire the team at Eskitis, they are true superheroes,” she said.

The “elephant’s toothpaste” experiment

Robert, aged 9 (and a half he will tell you earnestly), also donned a lab coat and safety glasses to learn how to grow alum crystals. He then took part in an experiment using pH indicators from nature and, when quizzed later, correctly identified if a substance was an acid or base.

Robert also learned how a catalyst can speed up an experiment but really, it was the “elephant’s toothpaste” experiment, using dry ice and dish washing liquid, which got his attention. A frothing mountain of very cold bubbles was produced. This, he declared, was awesome.

“I had the best time visiting the Eskitis Institute because not only did I learn so much in the experiments I conducted, the staff made learning about science really fun,” Robert said.

“Hopefully when the scientists from the Eskitis Institute undertake their research at the SteveIrwinWildlife Reserve, they will have success in finding pharmaceutical values in the plants they investigate.”

Professor Quinn said the opportunity to study this area of the Cape was a wonderful contribution to the Institute’s 10th Anniversary celebrations.

A gallery of images from the Irwins’ visithas been posted on Facebook.