50 years of groundbreaking research at La Trobe

la-trobe-university-50-years_inset2016 has seen La Trobe University firmly establish its place among the world’s top universities, being listed in the top 400 by all three major ranking agencies: QS, Times Higher Education, and AWRU (Academic Ranking of World Universities). To make this illustrious list, The University had to excel across a number of areas including teaching, employability, internationalisation, and research.

Now La Trobe has just been ranked in the QS Top 50 under 50, and with plans for our 50th anniversary underway the timing couldn’t be more fitting. Ahead of our 2017 celebrations, we’d like to recognise some of the groundbreaking research that has, in no small part, contributed to our ongoing success.

LIMS: Game-changing research

Established in 2009, the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS) embodies the University’s vision to be globally recognised for its excellence, creativity and innovation in relation to the big issues of our time. This vision is achieved through excellence in six areas of research strength: neurobiology, molecular design, molecular imaging and molecular sensing, infection and immunity, and cancer.

This year La Trobe research found a molecule that causes cachexia – a muscle-wasting condition responsible for up to one third of all cancer deaths. With the help of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, we’re developing an antibody for cachexia to help people fight cancer.

‘I don’t tend to throw around the term “world-first” – but this is a world-first discovery,’ said co-lead researcher Dr Amelia Johnston. The team’s discovery means a person with cancer will stay stronger for longer, improving their ability to fight the disease.

Parkinson’s disease is another of the ‘big issues of our time’. The progressive neurodegenerative condition affects movement and mobility – and an estimated 70,000 Australians and 6.3 million people worldwide.

So it would be an understatement to say there was a ‘buzz’ when La Trobe’s Microbiology research team announced the world-first diagnostic blood test that could – with unprecedented reliability – enable early diagnosis.

Earlier diagnosis means earlier treatment. As it currently stands, unless a patient is already showing symptoms, Parkinson’s can be extremely difficult to detect. While the research team has made incredible progress, the blood test isn’t quite ready for the public just yet – but when it is it could improve the lives of thousands globally.

OTARC: Helping those with autism thrive

La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) was established in 2008 as Australia’s first centre dedicated to researching Autism Spectrum Disorders. Part of their research focus is looking for ways to diagnose autism in children before they reach verbal maturity. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the sooner they can start a treatment journey and reach their full potential.

Director of OTARC, Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, says there are many autism spectrum disorders, on a whole affecting between one and two per cent of the population. ‘So it’s not rare – and being able to influence the lives of one to two per cent, I think is fabulous.’

Now with the release of ASDetect app, developed by research fellow Dr Josephine Barbaro, even more families will benefit from this research. The app enables parents and caregivers to assess the social attention and communication behaviours of children aged between 11 and 30 months.

The awarding-winning, video-led app is 81 per cent accurate in the early detection of autism and other related developmental conditions.

At the forefront of the digital revolution

‘Big data’ may sound like another buzzword, but here at La Trobe in 1981 a husband and wife research duo were already making sense of it via the cheekily-named computer program NUD*IST.

Lyn and Tom Richards developed the program that enabled them to evaluate data in ways never before possible. Its success led to the establishment of QSR International – the largest privately-owned qualitative research software developer in the world.

These days QSR products are used to help interpret and understand data by more than 1.5 million people in more than 150 countries, with the results informing health research, social policy and literature reviews.

Solving the burning question

From the time The University was founded in 1967, La Trobe was committed to the environment, opening our historical Wildlife Sanctuary that very year. Since that time, decades of work by researchers like Professor Michael Clarke has changed the way we manage wildfires and threatened species, especially in South-Eastern Australia.

This year Professor Clarke’s and his research team were shortlisted for a Eureka Prize for their extensive studies into managing fire for biodiversity conservation in semi-arid Mallee landscapes.

Professor Bennett said the team’s work has made a significant contribution to changing policy on prescribed burning in Victoria. Fire can affect vegetation for a century and more – and animals display distinct responses to fire that can last for a similar period.

‘A major legacy of this project has been its contribution to the next generation of fire ecologists, through the successful training of seven PhD students and several research fellows,’ Professor Bennett concluded.

The tip of the iceberg

This is just a sample of the exciting research happening now at La Trobe. At La Trobe’s Department of Education we’re revolutionising the learning environment, cultivating a sustainable future at our School of Life Sciences, and challenging the stigma of mental illness at our Rural Health School in Bendigo.

To learn more about the amazing discoveries and innovations over the past five decades, please visit our 50th anniversary site.