DISCOVER more about medical research

The word research is derived from the Middle French recherche, which means, ‘to explore’. Since the earliest recorded use of the term in 1577, people have engaged in research: generally with one aim – to make a discovery. The creative element behind some of science’s greatest leaps forward is most critical in the research phase, when scientists have the freedom and passion to pursue unexpected results or unusual ideas.

Medical research has led to new medicines, products, and technologies that have changed the lives of people worldwide. The pursuit of scientific curiosity through long-term research has proven to be the most practical and successful route to the discoveries and inventions with the greatest global impact.

PipetteFrom using the humble pipette to growing cells outside the body, medical researchers analyse our inner world, preparing us for the future of personalised medicine and healthier lives. As technology advances, so do the possibilities for medical breakthroughs.


‘We shouldn’t expect immediate major breakthroughs, but there is no doubt we have embarked on one of the most exciting chapters of the book of life’.

Professor Allan Bradley, Director of the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute.
The Institute sequenced nearly one-third of the first human genome analysed.

Medical researchWestern Australian scientists have made many advances in our understanding of disease, and developed treatments that have affected the lives of millions of patients worldwide. Once a researcher develops a theory, it must be tested to prove or disprove it. If the theory can’t be disproven, then a discovery has been made. This process can take months or even years of experiments. Often within this intensive testing phase unexpected findings are made that can lead to new projects and breakthroughs.

‘I don’t have to do bungee jumping. My life, my job … is so exciting. I’m at edge all the time. I don’t know what it means to be bored. I strive to come up with something that ultimately enhances us as a society’.

Professor Ruth Ganss, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Stomach ulcers and the antibiotic

The stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori
The stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori

Perth-based Professors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered in 1984 that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is the cause of stomach ulcers, reversing decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused by stress. Marshall was so sure he was right about the cause of stomach ulcers that he swallowed the bacteria to prove his point. A week later, he started vomiting and suffering other painful symptoms of gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach, which is now recognised as being caused by H. pylori. He then started taking antibiotics and within a few days all symptoms had cleared. Today the standard of care for an ulcer is treatment with antibiotics. Marshall’s story serves as a source of inspiration for all researchers, and he and Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005.

World’s largest family-based genetic study

Over three thousand Australian families with children affected by Type 1 Diabetes have joined an international effort to identify the genetic basis of the disease. Professor Grant Morahan at the Perkins led the recruitment of participants across Australia and the Asia Pacific region. The international study was the largest family-based genetic study ever performed, with DNA samples donated by more than 20,000 people from across the world. The result of the study led to discovering over 40 genes that increase the risk of developing the disease. Scientists at the Harry Perkins Institute’s Centre for Diabetes Research are now studying how these genes affect diabetes. In other work, the team is also developing methods for a cell-based treatment to cure this chronic disease.


Changes in blood vessels of the eye following diabetes.
From left, a non-diabetic retina shows organised blood vessels. After seven days of diabetes (middle) the blood vessels become dense and disorganised. After 21 days of diabetes (right) the retina blood vessels are very dense and chaotic.

Courtesy of Lakshini Weerasekera, Dr Lois Balmer and Professor Grant Morahan

‘Knowing how the risk genes work could show us how to prevent the disease, or stop it from returning after a cure is developed’

Professor Grant Morahan, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Pharmaceuticals and the body

Jellyfish showing fluorescence. Courtesy of The Marine Bioluminescence Web Page, University of California, Santa Barbara

Associate Professor Kevin Pfleger’s team at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research focuses on G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs sit in the membranes of cells throughout the body, where they detect signals from the outside world, such as light, odours and flavours, and signals from within the body, such as hormones. These signals are transmitted to the inside of the cell where they activate molecules called G proteins, which then trigger a variety of biochemical pathways. Associate Professor Pfleger co-invented the GPCR Heteromer Identification Technology, improving screening for the pharmaceutical industry, which has to test hundreds of thousands of compounds in the search for potential new therapies. GPCRs are difficult to see under the microscope, but it is important to know which proteins they interact with and when, so that we understand how they work. Associate Professor Pfleger is a world-leader in technology to monitor these interactions in living cells, called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer, which uses a green fluorescent protein very similar to the one found in bioluminescent jellyfish.

The life to come

Synthetic biology is a new area of biological research combining science and engineering. Perkins Associate Professor Oliver Rackham, one of the first synthetic biologists in Australia, is pioneering this exciting area of medical research. By creating cells with artificial genetic codes and engineering designer proteins, Professor Rackham has unlocked new possibilities for molecular therapeutics. These include artificial proteins that can act as nanomachines to fix genes that are impaired in disease. Professor Rackham’s work has also seen him ‘hijack’ bacteria to act as microscopic drug factories that offer huge potential for making a wide variety of new drugs inexpensively.

‘The potential applications of engineered cells are limited predominantly by our imagination.’

Associate Professor Oliver Rackham, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Super food discovery


In 2007, the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research launched a research facility aimed at harnessing the power of plants and genetics in a bid to beat the twin epidemics of Diabetes and Obesity. The project helped to maximize the potential of a major grain legume grown in Australia, the narrow leaf lupin. Research has shown, when added to foods as a flour, lupin may be beneficial in reducing the impact of diabetes and obesity by increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing appetite. Understanding the genetic makeup of the narrow leaf lupin, now possible because of the genomic revolution, will help unravel the many mysteries that still exist about how the grain boosts insulin sensitivity and creates a feeling of being full.

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