Feature Story | 7-Jun-2024

Developing drugs in the extra dimension

Queensland University of Technology

Queensland University of Technology

When researchers are making a new drug, they face years of work in development and trials. Then, in about 90 per cent of cases, the outcome is a failure and they slide back, snakes-and-ladders style, to start again.

Associate Professor Laura Bray, from the QUT School of Mechanical Medical and Process Engineering, wants to fast-track that process – so that even if a drug is set to fail, the researcher is back on that start line faster,  shaking off the failure and beginning work on their next best idea.

The key to compressing the “try, fail, then try again” process is not just a difference in speed, it’s also the addition of an extra dimension.

“Most cancer research performed in the lab is performed on a two-dimensional surface like plastic or glass and this doesn’t replicate human biology because humans are not two-dimensional,” Associate Professor Bray said.

“We use a jelly-like substance and we can put cancer cells inside and watch them grow and watch them interact with each other as we design these tissues in the lab.

“What we can also do is to use these models as a way to more specifically screen for drugs, to make drug treatments more accurate and more personalised.

“What we need to know is when those drugs are applied, how those tumour cells interact with their surrounding environment – which you don’t get with two dimensions.”

Drug design on target

The long-term aim, of building three-dimensional cell structures, is twofold: personalised medicine and drug development.

“You can use it to screen drugs for that particular patient and find out if are they resistant to a certain drug,” Associate Professor Bray said.

“Would they be of benefit to have this new upcoming drug? And you don't have to then test it on the patient but rather just on their cells.”

The process of testing possible medications on a person’s own cells is proven. The switch to use the technique in drug development is just a matter of scale, and possibly running a dual trial of cell testing alongside human testing.  One challenge is the need to have a large number of cancer cells to test a drug on, and the Mater-QUT Breast Cancer Biobank is a step towards that.

Professor Bray was recently a finalist in The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes in the Emerging Leader in Science award category.

In 2012 Professor Bray was awarded the inaugural Prime Minister’s Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Postdoctoral Award (awarded to only one woman in Australia).

She is also an ARC Future Fellow, an Australian Vascular Biology Society Achievement and Career Development Award winner, and has led her own research team for the past seven years, supporting four PhD and nine master degree students as principal supervisor.

Her mentoring and leadership roles have included being the deputy director of the ARC Training Centre for Cell and Tissue Engineering Technologies, deputy director of the Centre in Regenerative Medicine and co-founder of the Mater-QUT Breast Centre Biobank, which enables the donation of patient tissue to support clinical research into the treatment of breast cancers.

Since 2019, she has also managed a high school research placement program between QUT and two local Queensland Academy schools to boost awareness about STEM and foster a new generation of scientists.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Professor Bray’s career is that science was a fallback option when her ambition to be a vet hit a hurdle that many young people straight out of high school face.

“I didn't have the OP,” she said.

“I thought ‘I'll do a bachelor of science and improve my GPA so I can get in’.

“I'm not someone who has my future very planned. I’m not someone who's like ‘I'm going to be a professor and do that for the rest of my life’.

“When I was studying for a bachelor's degree, I was really doing it just because it was most similar to what I eventually wanted.”

At the end of her degree, she took up an opportunity to be a research assistant at the Mater Medical Research Institute because “it sounded interesting”.

And that's how I serendipitously fell in love with research, just from that first exposure,” she said.

Although she, again, didn’t have the grades initially to take the next step, with the help of her supervisor she did her honours degree, which was followed by a PhD.

“My PhD supervisor was advertising this project in tissue engineering for eye research,” Professor Bray said.

“He wanted to develop three-dimensional corneal tissues, the outer surface of the eye, using silk derived from silkworm cocoons and I thought this sounded really cool.”

Changing tack

By the time she had completed her PhD, Professor Bray was craving a new area to spark that drive for research.

“I thought this is interesting, but it doesn't get me up for work every day and I'm not sure this is something I want to do anymore,” she said.

“I had lost enthusiasm for it.

“I met up with one of my associate PhD supervisors, he was one of my long-time mentors and still is today.

“I said to him, ‘What should I do? Because I feel like I'm at the end of my PhD. I've done my PhD - changing fields now is probably not a great idea.’

“He was great about it. This was the second time already in my career I had changed fields.

“We just bounced around ideas and came up with tissue engineered models of cancer that I still do today.”

The opportunity to pivot came when she was awarded the inaugural Prime Minister's Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award as a "high-achieving Australian female student whose research will contribute to the advancement of women's leadership in Australia".

That took her to the Leibniz Institute for Polymer Research in Dresden, Germany for three years.

“I ended up in a polymer chemistry lab. Being the only person with a biology background in a chemistry lab was very isolating for a while because I was starting a new project I knew nothing about and it was difficult to get things going.

“But in the end, it was great, you know, you push through the first six months when you thought that maybe it was a huge mistake. “

The polymer chemists in the lab were developing hydrogels – and Professor Bray used those hydrogels to study cancer cells.

“I've met a lot of students along the way that have a similar feeling,” she said.

“And they're also not sure that changing fields right now is a good idea because their whole track record is built on that field.

“But I always say to them, I think whatever you learn in each field, you can apply to the next field.

“You’ve got the immunology, you learned the biology, the tissue engineering, now the polymer chemistry and you just take all that and you start to form your own interdisciplinary projects.”


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.