Director’s Message – The Chemistry of Partnerships - 19 May 2021

When we lack know-how, funds, networks, tools and space, it’s a good idea to find ways to band together, collaborate and form a partnership. A shared need and common goal brings people, labs and organisations together to form strategic partnerships.

In the past week, I attended the launch of the Victorian State Government’s Report: “Creating A Healthy Future”. It demonstrated the impact of strategic investment in the health and biomedical sector. The Bio21 story featured as its first case study and clearly shows how Bio21 owes its existence to partnerships.

Firstly, the impressive ‘Bio21 Australia Limited’ and ‘Bio21 Cluster’ partnership:

“Leaders from the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Health and WEHI identified the need for greater linkages between biotechnology research, translation and commercialisation activities within Victoria.”

“These entities partnered with the Victorian Government to establish Bio21 Australia Limited, which expanded to become the Bio21 Cluster representing more than 21 hospitals and medical research institutions. The overall aim of the Project was to create a medically focused hub of research, development and commercialisation that would attract talent and investment from around the world.” [Source: Creating a Healthy Future Report]

Secondly, in the funding of the David Penington building, which was to house the Bio21 Institute: 

“Victorian Government funding for the Bio21 Institute ($15 million) derived from the STI initiative* was supplemented by additional funding from the University of Melbourne ($50 million), the Atlantic Philanthropic Foundation ($30 million), the Australian Government ($9.5 million) and industry.”

[*The $620 million Victorian State Government’s Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) represents one of the largest investment programs in science and research capability by an Australian state government]

Apart from Bio21, there are 10 other case studies in Lead Scientist’s, Amanda Caples, “Creating A Healthy Future” report including investment in our neighbouring institutes including WEHI, MCRI, MIPS and MCRI, as well as in research platforms and in infrastructure and pathways to translation.

Partnering for facilities and instruments:

In fact, we continue to partner with researchers and medical research institutes to acquire shared facilities and instruments. In recent times, Bio21 has signed off on an agreement with WEHI to establish a joint crystallisation facility in MPC:

CSIRO Collaborative Crystallisation Centre (C3):

“WEHI and Bio21 have been using the CSIRO Collaborative Crystallisation Centre (C3) for protein crystallisation screening services. CSIRO have indicated that C3 is moving its centre away from the Parkville Biomedical Precinct in 2021 and consequently there will no longer be a crystallisation facility located in the precinct for WEHI and the University to use. WEHI and Bio21 have agreed to partner in the establishment of a crystallisation facility to be housed in MPC for use including new drug discovery”.

Indeed, the C3 Facility itself was borne out of a partnership with successful $1.9M application in 2007 via the Bio21 Cluster to the Victorian Strategic Technology Innovation Fund. The partnering organisations were WEHI (Peter Colman, Tom Garrett), Monash-MIPS (Ossama El-Kabbani), SVI (myself), Austin Research Institute (Paul Ramsland) and CSIRO (Mike Lawrence, Jose Varghese, Colin Ward). The grant was used to establish the Bio21 Nanolitre Protein Crystallisation Facility for Rational Drug Design and Therapeutic Development (subsequently named “Collaborative Crystallisation Centre” or C3 for short). So, we have come full circle with Bio21 (the Institute, not the Cluster) again establishing a crystallisation facility in the precinct in partnership with WEHI.

CryoEM, NMR and more…

In terms of instruments, the new Titan Krios cryoEM housed in Bio21’s Ian Holmes Imaging Centre, is a joint acquisition with WEHI, MIPS and CSL; the Glacios cryoEM is a MIPS instrument; the ACRF has funded our newly installed 19F NMR in the Magnetic Resonance platform and there are numerous examples of partnerships that have resulted in ARC LIEF funding, UoM RIF funding across faculties and NCRIS funding for Metabolomics Australia.

Collaboration needs ‘chemistry’:

But behind many of these strategic unions, it is the collaborative culture that provides these opportunities, that may be a less tangible, but no less valuable.

Serendipity can play a role. The opportunity to get to know people, build ‘rapport’ and connect through a different kind of ‘chemistry’.

We bump into someone in the tearoom, on the corridor, share an office, or chat over drinks after a seminar. We find out about their research and share some challenges we’ve been facing in the lab; we talk about the kids, the dog, the cricket and build a rapport and find out, perchance, that we share skills, knowledge, interests and networks that can help each other out in our science. That’s sometimes how things happen as well.

Collaboration led to Cu(ATSM):

“You can’t force collaboration. It’s about rapport; give and take; feedback based on trust,” says Professor Paul Donnelly, from the School of Chemistry and Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne, talking about the collaboration with Kevin Barnham (formerly Bio21, now Florey) and Anthony White (Honorary, Department of Pathology, MDHS), that led to their discovery and development of the drug Cu-ATSM that is showing promise in trials as treatment against Motor Neuron Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.

“We’ve shared ideas, resources, chemicals and compounds,” says Paul. The seeds of this remarkable collaboration between this group of chemists, neuroscientists and clinicians were sown back in 2004, when Paul was finishing his postdoc at Oxford University and figuring out what to do next. After reading about the work of Melbourne chemist Tony Wedd on metal biology, and Kevin Barnham and Frances Separovic’s work on brain plaques and copper in Alzheimer’s Disease, he decided: “I need to go to Melbourne to work on metallobiology”.

That same year Kevin Barnham and Tony White, who shared an office, were discussing their scientific frustrations at a lack of progress in Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is when Tony Wedd introduced me to Paul,” recalls Kevin.

“Within six months of arriving in Melbourne, Kevin briefed me on his work and MND, and I introduced him to a family of compounds and we haven’t looked back since,” recalls Paul.

A ‘CRP’ protein, a partnership and a new department:

Also, late last year, you may have read that a new Baker Department of Cardiometabolic Health in the Melbourne Medical School at the University of Melbourne was formed. It brings together research groups from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and the University of Melbourne (they will have small presence at Bio21 with ~five people, where we expect them to be enthusiastic users of Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Facility and Melbourne Protein Characterisation). The Head of the new department is Baker Deputy Director Professor Karlheinz Peter.

My interactions with Karlheinz started back in 2008, when he contacted me after reading a media release about my work. He was interested in my expertise as a structural biologist and as we got to know each other we soon realised that we shared a common interest: we were both fascinated by the protein ‘C-Reactive Protein’ or CRP.

As Karlheinz Peter aptly points out, the ingredients for this partnership come down to the mutual benefits derived from shared expertise, facilities and infrastructure but also to something less tangible, but no less important: ‘chemistry’.

At Bio21, the AscherDonnelly and Parker groups are members of the new department.

“Combining the expertise at the Baker Institute and the University of Melbourne through the new Baker Department of Cardiometabolic Health, allows us to harness all the unique talent and expertise available at both institutions. It works when the human ‘chemistry’ is right, but it also provides the environment to foster interdisciplinary collaborations, which often deliver the most disruptive scientific advances,” says Prof Karlheinz Peter.

Partnership is a theme that threads itself through all these stories. We are prepared to form partnerships when we trust and respect each other; when we can rely on each other’s commitment, goodwill and integrity. These are the building blocks of a good culture. Bio21 was founded on partnership and is aptly denoted by the three overlapping rings in our logo. As an interdisciplinary research institute, collaboration is written into Bio21’s DNA.

Michael Parker
Director, Bio21 Institute