Finding the key to reversing or preventing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are research breakthroughs which would affect the lives of millions.

It is with this lofty goal firmly in sight that University of Tasmania researcher Dr Phillippa Taberlay is launching into her current research in the field of epigenetics, made possible through funding in the latest NHMRC grant round for 2018.

A 2002 University of Tasmania graduate and now an Indigenous NHMRC Career Development Fellow and Senior Research Fellow at the University’s School of Medicine, Dr Taberlay was one of six recently announced College of Health and Medicine NHMRC recipients and is excited to be able to take her research further.

“All the College of Health and Medicine recipients are obviously thrilled with the outcome of this NHMRC round of funding,” she said.

My research lies in the field of ‘epigenetics’, which literally means ‘above DNA’ and refers to a chemical and physical jigsaw puzzle that allows the cells in different parts of our body to look and behave differently.

“This process becomes damaged in cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and it is important that we understand why this happens so that we can prevent or reverse disease progression.”

Dr Taberlay’s research will look closely at the makeup of DNA in cancer cells.

Her first research goal will be to determine why DNA is folded differently inside normal cells compared to cancer cells, with the intention of finding a way to reverse this defect as a new treatment option.

“As part of this project, we will alter the activity of a protein called BRG1 to test whether we can precisely control how DNA is folded as a way to destroy the survival advantage of cancer cells and force them to behave normally,” Dr Taberlay said.

The second goal of the research is to understand how epigenetics contributes to the onset and progression of sporadic Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are isolating specific cells from the brain, called neurons, and producing the very first large-scale maps of epigenetic modifications in these cells,” Dr Taberlay said.

This information will give us unparalleled insight into the role of epigenetic programming in Alzheimer's disease, may pinpoint why nerve cells die in Alzheimer’s disease and allow us to identify new targets for therapeutic intervention.

A University of Tasmania Bachelor of Science graduate (majoring in Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology) who returned to the University’s College of Health and Medicine to pursue her research, Dr Taberlay said she was also very proud as a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman, to be a medical research leader.

“My research career was enabled by the award of the Japanangka Errol West Postgraduate Research Scholarship and since then, an Indigenous NHMRC Career Development Fellow has assisted me to get where I am today,” she said.

Harbouring a lifelong fascination for biology, Dr Taberlay said she was passionate about using this to make a more difference to patients and medical treatments.

"I am fascinated by biology - what makes us work - and equally, in understanding how these normal processes that keep us healthy become damaged in disease,” she said.

“I am driven by the possibility of finding something completely new that has never been discovered before!

Putting these pieces of the puzzle together is really important so that we can help develop new ideas for patient treatments.

Dementia (encompassing Alzheimer’s disease), along with obesity and multiple sclerosis are the key research flagships of the University of Tasmania’s College of Health and Medicine.

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About Dr Phillippa Taberlay

Dr Phillippa Taberlay is an Indigenous NHMRC Career Development Fellow and Senior Research Fellow at the University’s School of Medicine

View Dr Phillippa Taberlay's full researcher profile