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Australia funds biophotonics center of excellence

30 Dec 2013

New research center headed up by Tanya Monro will open a 'window on the body' and seek to locate the molecular origin of pain and sensation.

A flagship research program set up by the Australian Research Council (ARC) is backing biophotonics technology through one of 12 new “centers of excellence” chosen to receive long-term funding in the country.

The ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, which is set to receive AUS$23 million over seven years, brings together leading researchers from the University of Adelaide, Macquarie University and Melbourne’s RMIT University.

The effort will be headed up by Tanya Monro from the University of Adelaide. In a statement issued by the institution, she said that the center would use photonics to create a “window into the body” with which to study reproduction, the immune system, and cardiovascular health.

Going in
“Our understanding of the processes of life is limited by constraints imposed by studying cells and biological systems outside the body,” Monro added. “Much more can be learnt if we can work within."

"We will use nanomaterials and photons to serve as an interface between organisms and artificially engineered systems. By bringing these fields together we will transform our understanding of nanoscale events in living systems.”

Working with industry and partner organizations who are expected to contribute an additional AUS$15 million in funding, the center will focus on three specific research themes, namely:

The Spark of Life - exploring approaches to sensing in and around developing embryos
Origins of Sensation - probing immune signals linked to touch and pain in the central nervous system
Inside Blood Vessels - exploring the role of the endothelium within blood vessels and the damaging effects of plaque

“These challenges have been selected because they pose measurement questions that cannot be addressed with existing technologies,” Monro explained. “They provide a context in which we can explore and extend the limits of science, and enable direct impact on people's lives.”

The multi-disciplinary effort will combine expertise in physics, chemistry, materials engineering, biology and medicine in a bid to develop new tools, techniques and sensors for controlling the interactions between light and matter at the nanometer scale.

It is hoped that this will lead to new ways to explore and quantify molecular structures within cells, and tissues in the body, with unprecedented sensitivity and spatial resolution, addressing major questions in the biomedical sciences like embryonic development, and the origin of pain and sensation.

Macquarie input
Monro will head up a team comprising nine other “chief investigators”, of which four are based at Sydney’s Macquarie University - Ewa Goldys specializes in nanotechnology and imaging techniques, while Dayong Jin works on diagnostic nanoparticles, Nicki Packer is known for her research of glycomics, and the eminent laser scientist and optical physicist Jim Piper is now a professor emeritus.

Sakkie Pretorius, Macquarie’s deputy vice-chancellor (research), said of the opportunities provided by the funding win: “Macquarie University will seal its place as world-leader in the areas of nanotechnology, nanoparticles and optical physics.”

According to the ARC’s selection report on the 12 new centers of excellence to receive central backing, the intention is to offer researchers the opportunity to work on potentially transformational activities over the long term, and to develop networks with both national and international partners.

As well as the biophotonics award, the ARC funding committee selected a center of excellence dedicated to advanced molecular imaging that will be led by James Whisstock at Monash University (receiving AUS$20 million, and another focused on robotic vision headed up by Peter Corke at Queensland University of Technology (AUS$19 million).

Meanwhile Murray Badger, a professor at The Australian National University, will direct the new AUS$22 million Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis in Canberra.

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