Leading by precision

REVOLUTIONARY: A stroke detection device called the Strokefinder MD100 helmet is being trialled for the first time in critical response settings.
REVOLUTIONARY: A stroke detection device called the Strokefinder MD100 helmet is being trialled for the first time in critical response settings.

With an acute stroke occurring every 10 minutes in Australia, a revolutionary detection device called the Strokefinder MD100 helmet is being trialled for the first time in critical response settings.

The helmet is compact, portable and affordable, enabling rapid deployment in Emergency Departments and ambulances. The patient’s head is sequentially scanned by antenna pads emitting low-energy microwaves similar to that of mobile phones – these pulses scatter in brain matter, detecting the type and location of the stroke.

Science fiction is becoming science fact at HMRI as sophisticated techologies are developed to allow more efficient and less intrusive ways to diagnose, treat and defeat disease.

Researchers and physicians from the Hunter, along with Sweden’s Medfield Diagnostics, are exploring the potential for stroke therapies to be administered as soon as possible – possibly even pre-hospital by paramedics connected via  telehealth.

The imaging system was adapted from defence applications, a multidisciplinary medical team is now refining the detection capabilities and algorithm, comparing the accuracy against their world-leading CT and MRI techniques.

Meanwhile, James Bond-style spyware employed by counter-terrorism agencies is helping to find genetic answers for children with undiagnosed intellectual disabilities.

Dr Tracy Dudding-Byth, a senior clinical geneticist and clinical research fellow from Hunter New England Health, has harnessed cutting-edge facial recognition software developed by Professor Brian Lovell from the University of Queensland to match faces of non-identical children within the same syndrome sub-group.

Her new FaceMatch system measures distinctive characteristics and contours, detecting subtle changes.

Geneticists investigating rare disorders currently take photographs of children’s faces and manually share them at conferences in the hope of finding another child with similar features. The success rate is just 25%, so most families endure what’s described as a “diagnosis odyssey”.

Supported by Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation funding, HMRI IT developers are building a new web-based portal that allows parents and doctors around the world to upload photographs and descriptive terms. Once a match is made, the respective DNA data for the two children will be analysed for common traits.

Dr Dudding-Byth is hopeful it will lead to more targeted gene therapies. “We’re hoping this project can help crack the genetic code and help us discover new genes to better understand the basis of intellectual disability,” she says.

A virotherapy firm co-founded by the University of Newcastle (UON) and lead researcher Associate Professor Darren Shafren is being aquired for a record $502 million by pharmaceutical giant Merck.

Viralytics, as the company is known, has an experimental immunotherapy compound called Cavatak that uses the common cold virus to infect and kill cancer cells.

It culminates more than 20 years of development by Associate Professor Shafren, supported since inception by HMRI and Newcastle Innovation, the UON’s tech transfer arm. The Greater Building Society (now Bank) supported the venture for 10 years, starting in 1999 with just $25,000 in seed-funding.

Bioscientific research continues to be performed at the University of Newcastle and HMRI Building, although Viralytics is now publicly listed and financially independent of HMRI.

Last month, the UON and HMRI announced the the world’s first virtual platform to host 3D copies of human cancer tissues, revolutionising the way researchers access critical information needed to advance cancer treatment.

The Virtual Biobank will digitise and accelerate the process of accessing vital tissue samples donated by patients, which up until now could only be requested through physical biobanks.

Chief investigators Dr Jamie Flynn, Dr Antony Martin and Dr William Palmer developed the technology as an open resource to speed up and enhance medical research activities. It uses a bespoke laser ‘lightsheet’ microscope called the Clarity, which the three researchers built by hand two years ago.

“We’ve taken a tiny sample from tumour biopsies stored at the Hunter Cancer Biobank in the HMRI Building and converted them into a virtual copy, enabling anyone around the world with an internet connection to carry out research from their computers or easily request access to the physical sample they need,” Dr Flynn said.

Meanwhile, work is continuing on an ‘artificial pancreas’ being jointly developed by UON engineers and HMRI diabetes researchers.The system comprises a blood glucose sensor and an insulin infusion pump that operate continuously on a closed loop, linking via bluetooth to a smartphone-based management system.

The secret is an intelligent algorithm created by the Research Centre for Complex Dynamic Systems and Control to calculate and deliver precise insulin dosage.

Associate Professor Bruce King, a paediatric endocrinologist at John Hunter Children’s Hospital, says the artificial pancreas will help eliminate the guesswork from diabetes management.

“Children and their parents currently have to calculate how many carbohydrates are in a meal and check the blood glucose level every time they eat to work out insulin dose, but this device will do it for them.”