“In 20 years’ time, Parkinson’s disease could be as treatable as diabetes. If research is adequately funded, that is.” That’s the opinion of science alumnus Dominic Hare.
Today, Dominic is a Visiting Fellow at UTS and the Head of the Florey Institute’s Atomic Pathology Laboratory. But, 10 years ago, Dominic was in the midst of a PhD at UTS, co-founding our Elemental Bio-Imaging Facility and developing a method to take pictures of metals in brains. The technique deconstructs the brain into its basic elements to reveal pictures of metal imbalances in areas affected by disease, such as increased iron in areas affected by Parkinson’s disease.
Dominic says, “The technology was really designed for the mining industry; it’s for measuring elements in rocks using lasers. But, it allows us to see how these fundamental building blocks of life – chemical elements – change in disease. We can look at very tiny changes in one element and how it relates to another and another and that gives you an ‘elemental signature’ of a disease.”
In 2014, then aged 30, Dominic was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and awarded a UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. He used the opportunity to partner with the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and use his imaging technology to answer pressing questions in medical research. “Using technology to try and understand disease is what I’ve aspired to since I was at UTS,” says Dominic. “I want to shorten the time it takes from understanding how a disease happens to actually using that information in a medical laboratory to develop new treatments.”
Today, Dominic, who was recently named the UTS Young Alumni Award recipient for 2018, heads up Florey’s Atomic Pathology Laboratory. Working with established and up-and-coming researchers in Australia and abroad, he’s helped identify what’s thought to be one of the first chemical reactions that triggers cell death in Parkinson’s disease. “Critically, we have discovered that two chemicals – iron and dopamine, which we have to have in our brain – don't play very nicely together,” he says. “When they come into contact with each other they can make really toxic chemicals, and we believe this is happening in the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients.”
Scientists in France are conducting a ‘phase two’ trial of a drug that’s expected to stall the Parkinson’s disease by targeting this reaction. Dominic hopes it can also be used as a preventative and is working on technology that determines a person’s risk of developing the disease. “With Parkinson’s, you don't show symptoms until 50 per cent of the cells that die in the brain have already gone, so I'm trying to identify people who are at risk before those neurons begin to deteriorate."
Dominic is driven by his own experience of the disease: he was in the early years of his PhD when he lost his “surrogate grandmother” to Parkinson’s. He now travels around regional Australia as a scientific liaison for Parkinson’s Australia. “I think it’s important to provide information to people with the disease and their carers,” he says. “And it's amazing to see how much they care about the research being done.”