Eskitis researchers impress on world stage

Eskitis Institute researchers, Dr Amy Jones and PhD candidate Bilal Zulfiqar
Eskitis Institute researchers, Dr Amy Jones and PhD candidate Bilal Zulfiqar

Young researchers from Griffith University’s Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery continue to win plaudits for their work seeking new therapies in the fight against cancer and infectious and neurological diseases.

Dr Amy Jones is currently in Scotland after being awarded funding from the Australian Society for Parasitology to visit the laboratory of Dr Manu de Rycker at the University of Dundee’s esteemed College of Life Sciences.

Dr Jones is a member of Professor Vicky Avery’s research team focusing on identifying new chemical scaffolds for leishmaniasis — caused by parasites and transmitted to humans via the bites of infected female sandflies — and trypanosomiasis, a vector-borne parasitic disease better known as sleeping sickness.

While trypanosomiasis is restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, leishmaniasis occurs in more than 90 countries with an estimated 350 million people at risk of the disease.

Yorkshire-born Dr Jones will observe the Leishmania assay at Dr de Rycker’s lab and sees the visit as an opportunity to learn new skills and techniques which can then be applied upon her return to Eskitis.

“I love parasites. They have so many different life cycle stages and multiple hosts, utilising each host to their own advantage,” says Dr Jones.

“Leishmaniasis and trypanosomiasis may not get the attention of the really big diseases like malaria, but current treatments are very toxic and not always effective. That’s a concern.

“If we can find a compound that kills the parasites without harming the person, then through working with our global network of collaborators we could take it all the way to the clinic and hopefully control these diseases.”

Another member of Professor Avery’s team, PhD candidate Bilal Zulfiqar, has received funding to attend the Sao Paulo School of Advanced Science on Neglected Diseases Drug Discovery — with a focus on Kinetoplastids (SPSAS-ND3) — to be held at the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials in the city of Campinas from June 14-24.

Concentrating on multidisciplinary aspects of drug discovery for Chagas disease, trypanosomiasis and leishmaniasis, high profile scientists from throughout the world will engage young researchers during the event to be hosted by the Brazilian Biosciences National Laboratory.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to advance my knowledge among world-leading scientists,” says Bilal, who is originally from Islamabad and started at Eskitis in April 2014.

“There are only 80 candidates at the event, 40 from Brazil and 40 from elsewhere, so I consider myself privileged to be able to attend.”

PhD candidate Claire Levrier
PhD candidate Claire Levrier

Meanwhile, PhD student Claire Levrier was recently awarded first prize for her oral presentation at the prestigious Australian Society for Medical Research postgraduate student conference.

Held at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, Claire’s presentation was entitled: Mechanism of action studies in prostate cancer cells of a new compound isolated from an Australian endemic rainforest tree.

“The compound in question, called 6AA, comes from a tree that grows between Brisbane and Sydney and nowhere else in Australia or the world,” says Claire, a member of Associate Professor Rohan Davis’s research team.

“We’re targeting microtubules, which are tubular structures found in the cytoplasm of cells and which are useful for mitosis, or cell division.

“In cancer cells, 6AA blocks this process, thus inhibiting the growth and spread of those cells.”

Claire joined Eskitis in 2012 and the following year began a PhD in natural product chemistry and cancer biology. Her project is being undertaken between Eskitis and the Australian Prostate Cancer Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology.

Originally from France, Claire has a Diploma in Plant Science and Horticulture and earned a Master in Natural Product Chemistry.