Midas touch

An article by Leigh Parry from The Age newspaper, June 20, 2005; CoPS/GEMPACK mentioned here.

Beyond the politics, lecture halls and campus clamour, a rich heritage of scholarship prevails. Leigh Parry explores the research realm of Victoria's universities - the place of remarkable discoveries, cutting-edge technology and blue-sky dreaming.

MONASH UNIVERSITY

In-vitro fertilisation

Professors Alan Trounson and Carl Wood's research during the late 1970s established IVF as a method for the treatment of human infertility worldwide.

While working in the UK in the mid-1970s, Professor Trounson developed embryo transfer and pioneered embryo-freezing techniques in domestic animal species. He returned to Australia in 1977 to work with Professor Wood. The Wood/Trounson team achieved the world's first clinical IVF pregnancy in Melbourne in 1973 and Australia's first successful IVF birth in 1980.

Anti-flu drug Relenza

The anti-flu drug Relenza, available in Australia in 1999, was designed and synthesised by Professor Mark von Itzstein and his team at Monash University's Victorian College of Pharmacy.

Its path to approval involved years of collaboration between Monash, the CSIRO, the Australian National University and pharmaceutical companies Glaxo Wellcome and Biota.

Relenza works by inhibiting the life cycle of the influenza virus by blocking the viral enzyme that allows it to multiply, preventing the virus escaping from the infected cells and spreading to healthy cells.

Relenza received regulatory approval by the European Commission and the US Food and Drug Administration in 1999.

Stem cells

In 2000, a team led by Professor Alan Trounson and Dr Martin Pera were the first in the world to demonstrate that human embryonic stem cells could generate specific types of body cells in the laboratory.

US scientists made the initial isolation of human embryonic stem cells, but they were unable to control their growth.

The Monash team showed that human embryonic stem cells could develop into nerve cells, raising the revolutionary prospect of treating a range of diseases from Parkinson's through to Alzheimer's and diabetes.

They also have the potential to produce human tissues or organs in the laboratory.

Wallace multiplier

In the 1960s, Professor Chris Wallace developed an algorithm of fast multiplication.

One of the second generation of computer scientists, Wallace entered the field from nuclear physics having developed, for his postgraduate degree, a complex computer program for analysis of cosmic ray events on SILLIAC, Sydney University's first computer (one of the first three computers to be built in Australia).

The Wallace multiplier is used in all pocket calculators.

GEMPACK software for economic modelling

Researchers at Monash's Centre of Policy Studies have spent 15 years developing the 'Monash' model of the Australian economy with the GEMPACK software.

Monash models are used to analyse almost every important economic issue, from free trade agreements with the US and China to tax changes, and are the foundations of economic modelling in many institutions overseas.

Minimum message length inference

Minimum message length (MML) inference is at the forefront of artificial intelligence technology and was developed at Monash by Professor Chris Wallace in 1968.

It has been widely applied in such areas as machine learning, statistics, econometrics and data mining. Data mining involves looking for hidden patterns in data that can be used to predict future behaviour (for example, the software can help retail companies find customers with common interests).

Professor Wallace's MML principle gives a universal objective function that is statistically consistent and invariant, with very little - or no - small sample bias.

Anti-obesity drug

Associate Professor Frank Ng is behind a world-first anti-obesity treatment that mimics the effects of exercise by increasing the rate at which fat is metabolised.

The treatment, called AOD9604, is a synthetic form of part of the human growth hormone.

Melbourne-based company Metabolic Pharmaceuticals is commercialising the product and it has passed the second phase of human clinical trials. It is expected to enter the final testing stage this year.

Smoothed particle hydrodynamics algorithm

In 1977, Professor Joe Monaghan and Dr Bob Gingold developed the smoothed particle hydrodynamics algorithm for simulating complex fluids and solids. It is a powerful method for solving complex fluid dynamical problems. Its applications now include special effects in movies, such as the scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King when Gollum falls into the lava, the simulation of galaxy and star formation and simulation of volcanic outbursts and tsunamis.

Malaria drug

Professor Bill Charman and researchers from Monash's Victorian College of Pharmacy, as part of an international team, have developed what could become the biggest breakthrough in malaria treatment in a generation - the new synthetic drug, nicknamed Oz.

Malaria kills between 1 million and 2 million people every year. The ability of Oz to treat drug-resistant malaria is the key to its success. The drug (OZ277/Rbx11160) is cheap and easy to manufacture and is now entering human trials in Europe.

THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE

Cochlear implant

Professor Graeme Clark pioneered the first multiple-channel cochlear implant - the "bionic ear" - considered to be the most important advance in the history of the treatment of profound deafness.

Professor Clark's research began in 1967, the trial on children for FDA purposes started in 1986 and the device received approval in 1990. With the commercialisation of the bionic ear by Nucleus Ltd, Professor Clark's work became the model of collaborative research leading to the transfer of basic research to international commercial application.

Recaldent

Professor Eric Reynolds' research into tooth decay led to the discovery of milk-based compounds that combat and repair the effect of acid on teeth and reduce the risk of dental caries.

Dr Reynolds and his team developed the protective compound Recaldent over 15 years. It was commercialised in 1999. Drug company Pfizer now sells chewing gum containing the product in the US, Japan and Europe. Recaldent has world market potential of more than $500 million a year.

Kidney damage and analgesics

Professor Priscilla Kincaid-Smith was director of nephrology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital from 1967-91 and professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne from 1975-91.

While working as a senior associate in medicine at the university in the 1960s, she demonstrated the link between kidney damage and the overuse of analgesics, the headache powders popular in Australia then. She campaigned against their use.

Professor Kincaid-Smith also made substantial contributions to research on the link between the kidneys and high blood pressure.

Boger fluids

Professor David Boger is director of the Centre for Particulate Fluids Processing. His research into fluid elasticity led to an understanding of fluid behaviour across industries, enabling them to be designed for different purposes.

Examples of "Boger fluids" include tomato sauce, toothpaste, molten plastics and mineral slurries. The research has led to practical applications, the most famous being a solution to Alcoa Australia's "red mud" waste disposal problem in Western Australia. This saved the company $10 million a year and was pivotal in developing an environmentally acceptable solution for the bauxite mining industry.

Now fluid flow has become an important component of nanotechnology, offering new horizons for Boger fluids.

Understanding alzheimer's disease

Professor Colin Masters has researched neurodegenerative diseases including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Alzheimer's disease for more than 30 years.

He exposed the molecular, genetic and biochemical pathways underlying Alzheimer's, which have been important to developing new treatments.

His work has led to methods for early diagnosis of Alzheimer's. He and other researchers have found that similar mechanisms act in many brain diseases of the elderly, including Parkinson's, Huntington's, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and motor neurone disease.

Quantitative phase imaging technology

Professor Keith Nugent is the only Australian to twice receive an R&D100 award, which acknowledges the 100 most significant international technical innovations each year.

He developed quantitative phase imaging technology and has made groundbreaking research into the way we see and measure images using light. The technique can greatly expand the amount of information scientists glean from viewing objects under microscopes, in X-rays or even living tissue. For example, it can help cancer research by precisely quantifying the volume of cells.

The technique has had far-reaching implications in science, from biomedical and industrial imaging to quantum mechanics.

Acquired immunological tolerance

Sir Macfarlane Burnet won a Nobel prize in 1960 for his discovery of acquired immunological tolerance. He proposed two concepts - acquired immunological tolerance and the clonal selection theory of antibody protection, which proved to be critical in stimulating research and led to a more complete understanding of immune processes. His work influenced developments in DNA sequencing.

DEAKIN UNIVERSITY

Depression/diabetes/obesity genes

Professor Greg Collier and researchers working through pharmaceutical company ChemGenex (based at Deakin's Geelong campus) have discovered and patented a number of genes related to depression, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Researchers announced last year they found five genes that were differentially expressed over a period of eight days in animal models. The discoveries included some genes that have never before been reported and a known receptor not previously associated with depression.

LA TROBE UNIVERSITY

Multiple sclerosis model

Groundbreaking research by Professor Claude Bernard in La Trobe University's neuroimmunology laboratory in the 1990s led to the development of an experimental model that mimics all the features of multiple sclerosis (MS). Drug companies have used the model to successfully develop new therapies to treat MS. Researchers worldwide also use the model to search for more treatments for MS and many other degenerative diseases of the nerves of the spinal cord and brain.

Professor Bernard's group has also been at the forefront of exploring the potential of a vaccination for MS.

Preserving endangered languages

Professors Bob Dixon and Alexandra Aikhenvald lead La Trobe's Research Centre for Linguistic Typology, recognised worldwide in the study of Australian and global language and language change.

The centre works with many small tribal groups, preparing texts and other materials that help retain near-extinct languages for future generations. Professor Dixon's work, Australian Languages: Their Nature and Development, deals with four decades of study of about 250 Australian Aboriginal languages. Professor Aikhenvald works with tribes in the Amazon jungle and the swamps of the Sepik, in Papua New Guinea.

Study of ancient Athens

Professor Michael Osborne and assistant Sean Byrne published in 1994 a biographical study of the inhabitants of ancient Athens. It is the first comprehensive coverage of the entire population of ancient Athens, and is now used by historians and archaeologists worldwide.

Muscle fatigue

Professor George Stephenson and Graham Lamb at La Trobe's Muscle Research Laboratory, along with Danish researchers, discovered the mechanism by which acidity helps prevent muscle fatigue. The

finding contradicted the belief that acidity - through a build-up of lactic acid - is a major cause of muscle fatigue.

Their research, published in the August 2004 issue of Science, found muscles play a clever trick in which they use acidosis - the build-up of acid - to ensure they keep responding properly to nerve signals and so avoid the fatigue that would normally occur.

RMIT UNIVERSITY

Superbike

Olympic athlete Kathy Watt, a former RMIT student, won the world one-kilometre record on the RMIT Superbike.

The Superbike was engineered and manufactured by a project team from RMIT and the Australian Institute of Sport. Cyclists using the carbon fibre Superbike have created 26 world championship records.

Salmonella vaccine

RMIT was commissioned to develop a live salmonella vaccine for use on chicken and dairy farms to reduce the risk of infecting humans with salmonella. Researchers developed the vaccine by modifying the DNA of a selection of the salmonella strain. The vaccine has been registered for use on poultry and sold to Ingham and Steggles. It is being prepared to be registered for cattle and sold in Japan and the US.

SWINBURNE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY

Galactic habitable zone

Astronomers Yeshe Fenner and Brad Gibson from Swinburne, along with Charles Lineweaver from the University of NSW, identified the region where life is most likely to prosper in our Milky Way galaxy.

Their research on the galactic habitable zone - an area of space whose boundaries are set by its calm and safe environment - was published in the January 2004 issue of Science. Researchers said determining the space-time distribution of life in the Milky Way could increase the chance of success for future space missions attempting to find habitable Earth-like planets.

Dissociative identity disorder

Dr Joseph Ciorciari, from Swinburne's Centre for Neuropsychology's research on dissociative identity disorder (DID) - or multiple personality disorder, as it was known - was hailed as a breakthrough. He found that when DID patients' alternative personalities (alters) were active, they showed radically different brain pattern activity.

Using actors as controls for the research, Dr Ciorciari established that the brain activity of those without the condition was identical when they assumed different personalities to perform the same task. This provided the first scientific basis of the disorder.

Dissolvable plastic

Professor Greg Lonergan, Dr Gregor Christie and Dr Ranjith Jayasekara from Swinburne have worked with scientists from CSIRO and the University of Queensland to develop dissolvable plastic. Made of 90 per cent corn starch, it looks, feels and performs like plastic but disappears when exposed to water.

The biodegradable material is already used by Cadbury in its Milk Tray range of boxed chocolates and will have potential in perishable and non-perishable food packaging, agriculture and and non-food packaging.

Talking Chinese dictionary

The Talking Chinese Dictionary and Instant Translator, invented by Swinburne mathematician and software developer Professor Myles Harding, is now available through Oxford University Press.

The CD-ROM-based software enables instant translation of the most complex character compounds.

UNIVERSITY OF BALLARAT

Optimisation research

Professor Alex Rubinov and colleagues from the university's Centre for Informatics and Applied Optimisation are working with several universities analysing anthropometric data and creating specialised modelling software for the Australian Defence Force.

The ADF is investing $4.2 million to ensure that pilots can operate aircraft safely and efficiently without being physically compromised by the confines of space.

By creating 3D models of pilots and cockpits, researchers can determine which people "best fit" the spaces. The aim is to produce a highly refined software package that will allow the ADF to determine each pilot's physical capabilities and limitations.

AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY

Human resources accounting

Dr Sugumar Mariappanadar and Marcia O'Neill are using a $10,000 faculty research grant to help demystify human resource measurement or accounting. Investigating how managers define the value of their staff, the researchers are looking at resource measurement, information about the cost and value of people and how management makes decisions about their staff.

They said companies that adopted sustainable human resources strategies benefited, but widespread and ill-considered retrenchments damaged the reputations of companies and their managers.

VICTORIA UNIVERSITY

Fire safety system

The Centre for Environmental Safety and Risk Engineering has had international recognition for its work into the development of a fire safety system model. The advanced computer programs are used to predict the growth and spread of smoke and fire through buildings. This predicts the risk of death and injury to occupants, the expected cost of damage to the building, and the overall cost of fire safety through the life of a building. It also predicts the effectiveness of fire safety system designs for buildings.