Three Monash academics nominated finalists for the 2021 prestigious Eureka Prizes.

Three Monash University research projects across two categories including technology and leadership have been named as finalists in the 2021 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes.

Finalists include researchers from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and the Faculty of Engineering.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes honour excellence across the areas of research and innovation, leadership, science engagement and school science, and are presented annually in partnership with some of the country’s leading scientific institutions, government organisations, universities and corporations.

The Monash finalists shortlisted for the 2021 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are:

ANSTO Eureka Prize for Innovative Use of Technology:

Team Chimera, Associate Professor Fasseli Coulibaly from the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, in collaboration with the University of Queensland and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research InstituteFlaviviruses are viruses transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks to vertebrates including humans. Dengue virus is the most prevalent flavivirus causing an estimated 400 million cases per year.

Team chimera has developed a new chimeric technology that accelerates scientific discovery and provides a platform to make the next generation of flavivirus diagnostics, therapies and vaccines. The approach uses a benign insect-specific flavivirus discovered in remote Australia as a safe backbone vector to mimic flaviviruses pathogenic to humans .

Armed with only the sequence of the target virus, a modular and streamlined approach allowed the team to rapidly generate new viral mimics or chimeras to match an emerging outbreak strain in a matter of weeks.  This pipeline provides a unique toolset to (1) study the structure of pathogenic viruses safely, (2) generate effective and scalable vaccines for current threats and in response to an emerging outbreak, (3) rapidly deploy sensitive and accurate diagnostics and (4) develop new and more effective antiviral therapies.

“Initially focusing on an insect virus instead of the human pathogens wasn’t an obvious choice and required a team with a remarkable breadth and complementarity,” says Associate Professor Coulibaly.

“The beauty of this research is that it paves the way to both fundamental advances towards a high-resolution movie of flavivirus assembly, and an innovative technology to help prevent and cure these devastating diseases”.

The Membrane Team, Professor Huanting Wang, Dr Huacheng Zhang (now at RMIT University), Professor Matthew Hill, Professor Xiwang Zhang, Professor Benny Freeman (joint appointment with The University of Texas at Austin), Dr Jun Lu and Dr Xingya Li  from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Monash Centre for Membrane Innovation, and Dr Anita Hill from CSIRO

The membrane team have developed a filtration technology utilising membranes that can separate lithium from brines within hours. This has been achieved by incorporating specific nanomaterials with exquisite control, such that synthetic ion channels are incorporated within the membrane.  Previously, it was not possible to gain selectivity between lithium and other metal ions in a filtration application; therefore, slow evaporation processes were required to isolate lithium by precipitation with addition of chemicals such as sodium carbonate, a process that can take as long as many months to two years to complete.

“It’s our wonderful international team efforts that make this research successful. Our new membrane technology has great potential to address the key challenges in sustainable lithium mining and lithium ion battery recycling, ” says Professor Wang.

Membrane science and technology is an interdisciplinary area of research with important intersections with other major Monash research efforts including  nanomaterials, sustainable engineering,  pharmaceutical research and development, food science & engineering, energy and environments and additive manufacturing.

AstraZeneca Eureka Prize for Emerging Leader in Science:

Jane Tiller, Ethical, Legal and Social Adviser in the Public Health and Genomics ProgramThe public-health potential of genetic testing is clear. For certain diseases, including some cancers, preventative surgery or screening and early intervention can prevent or treat disease at an early stage. Thus, identifying genetic predisposition to disease, before disease onset, can truly save lives.

In some countries, consumers can decide whether to have genetic testing without fear of insurance implications.   In Australia, however, life insurance companies can legally use applicants’ genetic test results to decline cover or increase the cost of policies. Research shows insurance fears deter at-risk individuals from clinical testing and research participation, creating barriers to research, clinical outcomes and precision medicine initiatives.

Jane Tiller’s research and advocacy regarding insurance discrimination in life insurance  over the past 4 years led to important changes in life  insurance industry policy in 2019. Jane now leads a 3-year government-funded project to monitor its effectiveness for Australian consumers.

Jane says “I am passionate about proper regulation of the use of genetic test information. I’ve worked hard for the past few years to conduct research and lobby the government for increased consumer protection in this area. My ongoing work will continue to gather evidence and hopefully inform future government policy to ensure consumer confidence in genomics.”

The winners will be announced on Thursday October 7, 2021.

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