Pioneering research into two of the world’s greatest health threats has been bolstered by a generous donation from a family intent on changing the world for the better.
Scientists from the University of Tasmania’s Wicking Dementia Research Centre are creating lab-grown human ‘mini-brains’ to improve our understanding of dementia and traumatic brain injury.
There are 50 million people living with dementia globally. Without a medical breakthrough that figure is expected to rise with the rapidly ageing population.
Researchers at the Hobart-based centre have been at the forefront of research into Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury, which together are thought to affect over 700,000 Australians.
Now, thanks to a donation from the Merridew Foundation, their efforts will be boosted. The Foundation was set up by Launceston couple George and Sarah Merridew and their two daughters, Nancy and Alison, so they could support projects they believed in.
“Our support of the human neuronal study acknowledges one of my brothers, an accomplished journalist, who had dementia from age 55 until he died 10 years later,” Dr Merridew said.
Over three years, the Foundation will donate $75,000 to support cutting-edge research, where scientists change skin cells – derived from tissue donated by Tasmanians - into pluripotent stem cells and then into nerve cells. These cells are then grown into organoids, also known as mini brains.
The tiny three-dimensional structures closely resemble the make-up of the human brain, paving the way for improved investigations into causes and treatment.
Director of the Wicking Centre Professor James Vickers said the work builds on stem cell research led by Associate Professor Tony Cook. It represents a terrific opportunity to boost research towards an understanding of how human nerve cells respond to injury and neurodegenerative disease.
“Philanthropic support, such as the funding supplied by the Merridew Foundation, is a great boon for kick-starting cutting-edge research into new medical research programs,” Professor Vickers said.
The mini-brains will help researchers study the way the brain responds to repetitive traumatic injury and the similarities between the condition and Alzheimer’s disease. In the long term, researchers hope to use them to screen for existing drugs that may be effective in treating dementia and traumatic brain injury. They are also aiming to investigate new therapeutic approaches to protect and regenerate the cells that make up the brain and nervous system.
George and Sarah Merridew are University of Tasmania alumni, graduating from Bachelor of Medicine Bachelor of Surgery and Bachelor of Economics respectively.
They believe their education gave them a great impetus in life.
Their foundation also supports: scholarships, a women’s shelter, youth programs at the PCYC and research into nanoparticles to reduce destructive inflammation due to cerebral malaria, viral encephalitis, and stroke.
“Our family has received largesse of many kinds in past decades from many quarters: Australian and overseas. We are reciprocating to the broad community, if not to our original benefactors,” Dr Merridew said.
This story can be seen in the University's A Year in Review
Image: The Wicking Centre's Associate Professor Tony Cook by Peter Mathew