05:41am Tuesday 25 February 2020

New neurons to regenerate your brain


Francesca Maclean, who is graduating from ANU this afternoon, has spent the past two years working towards a cure for Parkinson’s disease with PhD students in the Laboratory of Advanced Biomaterials.

“In Parkinson’s, neurons die and that results in reduced levels of dopamine, which is the chemical that tells your body when and how to move. That’s why people with Parkinson’s shake,” she says.

“But we’ve come up with a way to help regenerate neurons.”

The process involves attaching proteins called growth factors to nanofibres that we synthesise in the lab. The proteins tell the brain what sort of cells to produce and how many.

“The growth factor proteins instruct the growth of new neurons and the nanofibres provide a scaffold for the neurons to grow on.”  

Francesca, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Engineering/Bachelor of Science, has been studying for five years and juggling three part-time jobs.

“It was a really great moment when I got my final results,” she says. “You know, when you think about it, five years is a long time to be in the same place doing the same thing.”

But that hasn’t dampened Francesca’s passion for research. She’ll be continuing her project when she starts a PhD next year.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she says. “This is really cutting edge stuff. There’s only a couple of other labs in the world doing it.

“You need to have some engineering knowledge because the fibres have to be the same stiffness as the brain tissue, and you need to make sure it won’t elicit an immune response.”

Francesca’s family are down from Darwin to celebrate her graduation.

“It’s taken my family two years to understand what I do. Mum still gets some words mixed up sometimes,” she laughs. “But I’m very excited because my six-month-old nephew is coming to watch me graduate.”

Francesca is graduating with first class honours from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The Australian National University, Canberra

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