Cynthia Whitchurch discovered that dangerous bacteria in biofilms follow each other like ants, or 4WD drivers following tracks in the sand. Then she showed she could create microscopic tracks on medical devices to limit the spread of the bacteria that cause infection. Based on her work, new types of catheters are being developed that are less likely to become infected.
For these and other discoveries, Associate Professor Whitchurch, a scientist at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), has been jointly awarded the David Syme Research prize for the best original research in biology, physics, chemistry or geology, produced in Australia during the preceding two years.
The other recipient is UTS physicist Associate Professor Igor Aharonovich for his discovery of new sources of photons for quantum technologies.
The prize was established with a bequest from the publisher of The Age newspaper and is administered by The University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Science.
Whitchurch is one of only a handful of women to receive the prize since it was first awarded in 1906. The last was Professor Suzanne Cory, immediate past president of the Australian Academy of Sciences (1982).
As a microbiologist in the UTS ithree institute, Whitchurch has spent her career studying how bacteria coordinate their behaviour and activities to form biofilms so that she might discover new ways to treat infection and reduce antibiotic use.
Biofilms give bacteria extra protection from antibiotics and grow on implanted medical devices such as catheters. Whitchurch discovered that bacteria organise themselves using a process called stigmergy.
“Imagine a 4WD creating tracks across the sand dunes, there’s a natural tendency to follow that path,” she says, “that’s stigmergy.” It’s common in nature, for example in ants and zebras.
Whitchurch focuses on the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a superbug that is number two on the World Health Organisation’s “critical” priority list of pathogens requiring urgent development of new antibiotics.
She showed that small furrows in silicone can inhibit biofilm expansion. Her team’s findings have resulted in an industry partnership with a Sydney-based catheter manufacturer.
The potential benefit to hospital patients and aged care clients is significant because nearly 25 per cent of hospital patients require catheters.
The second part of Whitchurch’s original work is around a related phenomenon she terms “explosive cell lysis” where bacteria release “public goods” back into the biofilm where they are used by other members of the community.
Igor Aharonovich is associate director of the Initiative for Biomedical and Materials Devices (IBMD) at UTS. His research underpins the development of quantum computing based on photonics. He led his team in the discovery of new sources of single photons – including gallium nitride and zinc oxide that could help quantum technologies transition from a laboratory to a commercial setting in the form of ultrasensitive sensors and key components for secured communications.
Aharonovich has also made breakthroughs in the broader field of physical sciences by engineering quantum emitters in an atomically thin (2D) material called hexagonal boron nitride.
Professor Glenn Wightwick, UTS Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), says the award recognises the extraordinary contributions Whitchurch and Aharonovich have made in their fields.
“Through their respective research, they have expanded our understanding of antibiotic resistance and made significant strides towards realising quantum technologies. These achievements reflect the quality of research being undertaken at UTS, and our focus on delivering outcomes that benefit society.”
Professor Karen Day, Dean of Science at The University of Melbourne, says she is “delighted with the outcome of this year’s David Syme Research Prize, particularly as it recognises our faculty’s active role in promoting research excellence and the achievements of women in STEM.
“As Dean of Science, I am also pleased to celebrate the research of one of our alumni, Associate Professor Aharonovich.”
About the David Syme Research Prize
The prize has been awarded annually since 1906 and is administered by the Faculty of Science at The University of Melbourne. This Australia-wide award has a distinguished list of previous recipients, including Professor Suzanne Cory, immediate past president of the Australian Academy of Sciences; Professor Brendan Crabb, Director of the Burnet Institute; and Professor Frank Fenner, foundation Director of the Centre for Resources and Environmental Studies at the ANU.