Eureka Prize wins for Gooding, Neilan

Justin Gooding (left), actor Cate Blanchett, and Brett Neilan at the awards ceremony
Wednesday, 19 August, 2009

Two Faculty of Science researchers have been honoured with wins in the 2009 Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, Australia's most prestigious science awards.

Professor Brett Neilan, a Federation Fellow in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, has won the Eureka Prize for water research and innovation. Professor Justin Gooding, from the School of Chemistry, won the Eureka Prize for outstanding curiosity-driven scientific research. Each award is valued at $10,000.

Professor Neilan won the Land & Water Australia, Professor Peter Cullen Eureka Prize for Water Research and Innovation, which recognizes research making an outstanding contribution to the sustainable use and management of Australia's water resources. It is his third Eureka Prize, making him the most awarded scientist in the 20-year history of the awards.

Professor Neilan's work has revealed the genetic pathways for four versions of cyanobacterial toxin, one of which is saxitoxin. He has also recently discovered a link between the high salinity of the Murray-Darling River system and the growth of saxitoxin-producing cyanobacteria.

"Professor Neilan's work has fundamentally improved our understanding of the conditions that lead to toxin production in waterways and water supplies. This knowledge is critical for public health, the health of our environment, and even water security," says Dr Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum.

Found in temperate and sub-tropical freshwaters worldwide, cyanobacterial toxins are extremely potent, causing either nerve damage and acute liver failure in large doses or carcinoma after prolonged low-level exposure.

DNA testing made possible by Professor Neilan has revolutionised management of water supplies. DNA tests can now be done while cell numbers are low, with results available within hours. This means prompt action can be taken before toxin levels become significant.

Previously, toxicity tests were only possible with high cell numbers and results not available for some weeks . The new method also means that animals are no longer sacrificed to ensure safe drinking water.

In a measure of the significance and impact of his work, many international groups, including the World Health Organisation, have adopted Professor Neilan's techniques for the rapid and accurate detection of toxic cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies, and these patented tests are now the standard means of assessing environmental health. The research will also lead to the design of antidotes to cyanobacterial poisoning, which can also occur through seafood.

Outstanding curiosity-driven research

Professor Gooding won the University of NSW Eureka Prize for Scientific Research  awarded to a researcher for outstanding curiosity-driven scientific research.

Professor Gooding has pioneered research into biosensors, a class of portable analytical devices that will bring profound benefits in health and environmental testing.

"The benefits of Professor Gooding's sensors are not restricted to blood testing. They also include sensors that minimise side-effects from drugs and assist with pesticide detection in drinking water," Dr Howarth said.

The research has enabled rapid development of in-field detection kits, making it possible to perform accurate tests with quick  results using non-specialist staff. For example, the millions of blood tests ordered each year in Australia, could be carried out using in-field detection kits. These would give rapid results and create huge savings, estimated as up to 20%.

Professor Gooding's research will also enable the development of diagnostic devices to detect bioactive compounds and predict how people will respond to them. This means customising dosage and types of drugs for individual patients, minimising side-effects and saving costs.

The research is also applicable to environmental monitoring, in particular immunobiosensors, for pesticide detection in waterways - a major source of contamination around Australia.

His work is also expected to play a crucial role in the development of cell biochips. These are tipped as the ‘next-big-thing' in biosensors, providing more efficient testing procedures for new drugs.

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