If humankind is to survive the health and environmental issues facing us, then Griffith University researchers will be squarely in the mix with solutions as World Science Festival Brisbane (20-24 March, 2019) urges us to find brave new ideas before we risk our own extinction.

The only World Science Festival held outside of New York, WSF Brisbane creates a world-class event of engaging conversations on the challenges that confront us, and exciting celebrations of the answers science promises.

Experts from around the globe will discuss the threat of killer epidemics and pandemics in the age of global travel, changes to the Great Barrier Reef, the wonder and fragility of Antarctica, endangered species and the confrontational experimentations in de-extinction, and the most fundamental challenge: feeding the world in the future.

Amidst all that weighty debate, Griffith will inject fun into Street Science, encouraging the next generation of scientists to explore, experiment and ultimately solve the problems we leave behind.

The Ultimate Travel Bug

Dr Peta-Anne Zimmerman.

Griffith experts will headline a signature event — Pandemics & Epidemics: Preparing for the Ultimate Travel Bug (March 22) as part of an international panel discussing modern day threats arising through increased global travel and complacency about the risks, together with age-old problems of war and poverty and our encroachment on the environment spreading zoonotic diseases.

While middle-age plagues and pestilence of biblical proportions may be in the past, the present day threat remains real according to Griffith international infection prevention and control expert Dr Peta-Anne Zimmerman, who consults to the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN)and worked on the SARS outbreak among others.

Dr Zimmerman, who coordinates Australia’s only Masters level infection prevention and control graduate program, says we will only control infectious diseases if people are prepared to be ‘global citizens’.

“Humans, animals and the environment we’re all in this together, we can’t isolate ourselves; for example we can’t kill all the bats because of Hendra virus,” Dr Zimmerman says.

The ‘One Health’ approach is the foundation for Griffith’s popular massive open online course which debuted in 2018 and will be offered free again from March 25 through FutureLearn.

“Called ‘Plagues, Pestilence & Pandemics — Are You Ready?’, it’s basically a taster about the history of infectious diseases, as well as simple ideas about how to be global citizens by recognising travel as an issue, getting vaccinations, appropriate hand hygiene and the ‘one health’ philosophy.”

Professor Kathy Andrews.

Joining Dr Zimmerman on the panel, Professor Kathy Andrews, Acting Director of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD), adds to the plea for a humanitarian and holistic approach, with many people immune to the statistics of killer tropical diseases like malaria.

“I can say that a child dies every two minutes from malaria and it often doesn’t register with people – it becomes a number that doesn’t mean anything,” Professor Andrews says.

Fighting malaria means a lot to Professor Andrews and her team, who are working to discover potential new medicines to prevent and treat malaria, a parasitic disease transmitted by certain mosquitoes. Simultaneously, Griffith colleagues at the Institute for Glycomics have a promising malaria vaccine candidate in human clinical trials.

While hopeful of the potential for a vaccine, Professor Andrews says there is likely to be a jigsaw puzzle of solutions, including better vector control, public health measures, vaccines and anti-malarial drugs.

As part of her commitment to improving the lives of people with malaria, Professor Andrews is also passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists and has authored a children’s book on parasites that she hopes will engage children in the wonders of STEM.

Personalised medicine

Professor Nigel McMillan.

While the fight continues to control global infectious diseases, the battle to beat chronic diseases in our ageing population is increasingly being fought at an individual level, with the promise of personalised and precision medicine also being spotlighted as part of WSF.

Cancer Biologist Professor Nigel McMillan will join the debate at a Salon event — Tackling Immunity: Best Friend, Worst Enemy (23 March), exploring the latest technology that allows scientists to edit our genes to fight off our own specific diseases and create our own targeted anti-bodies.

“We work to cure cancers that are caused by infectious organisms,” Professor McMillan says.

“We can go in and delete out the virus genes that result in this cancer and we can cure this disease in our pre-clinical models. The next step is bringing this to the clinic.”

Professor David Lloyd.

Emerging personalised medicine technology will also be explored as part of the Making it Great — Celebrating Queensland Invention (21 March), with bio-mechanical engineer Professor David Lloyd offering insight into leading-edge research creating ‘digital twins’ to personalise training and injury prevention, customise surgery and rehabilitation, and design and create bespoke tissue implants and devices using the latest 3D printing technology.

“We’re developing technologies that prevent the break of musculoskeletal tissues or neurological or cardiovascular tissues,” Professor Lloyd says.

“We’re interested in training tissues so they get to optimum strength so they won’t break, but if they do break and they do need repairing, how do you do a personalised implant that is 3D printed to match what is broken, as well as customising rehabilitation to get patients well again.”

Feeding the world — one ‘pawpaya’ at a time!

As much as the promise of healthy ageing excites, there’s the pressing problem of feeding our world’s growing, ageing population.

Again Griffith researchers are to the fore in developing new approaches towards sustainable farming practices and to increase productivity and market return to growers — from the use of AI and related technologies to improve crop security, quality and yields to making a much-maligned fruit taste better in order to harvest the health and economic benefits.

Professor Rebecca Ford.

The papaya, commonly known as the humble pawpaw, is being given a taste makeover thanks to a combination of laboratory research by Professor Rebecca Ford,Dr Chat Kanchana-udomkan and their team.They’re selectively breeding new varieties that not only have a clean and delicious flavour profile but also higher sweetness, without GMO, for ultimate direct competition on the supermarket shelves with mango and honeydew melon.

“We’re unravelling the sweetness pathway using traditional breeding and advanced molecular gene selection and this knowledge could then be applied to other crops,” Professor Ford says.

We’re are also producing papaya that leaves the existing bland or astringent tasting varieties far behind.”

Professor Ford will be part of the Feeding the World – the Big and Small Solutiions conversation (23 March) lending Griffith’s considerable expertise to discussions on food security as the university prepares to host a new $5 million ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Driving Farming Productivity and Disease Prevention.

Bringing wildlife back

While genomics has its role to play in food security, Griffith environmental scientists will be in the mix for debate about whether human efforts should be focused on bringing animal species back from extinction – Bringing Them Back: The De-extinction Debate (March 20) or saving the wildlife we still have — Saving what we’ve got — Australia’s wildlife under threat (March 22)

Dr Duan Biggs, a scientist and conservationist working on policies to address the illegal wildlife trade, and disease ecologist Professor Hamish McCallum will lend their expertise – with humans largely responsible for bringing many species to the brink and beyond, discussions will focus on whether humans should play creator as well as protector, just because we can.

Street Science (March 23 & 24), featuring Griffith’s popular Science on the Go team will create a science playground for young and young-at-heart in the Southbank Cultural Forecourt and on the Osmosis Stage, where science is set to surprise.