The molecular mysteries that allow cancers, viruses and autoimmune diseases to dodge the body’s defence mechanisms will come under the microscope at a new centre that will use pioneering Nobel Prize-winning technology.

UNSW will take a leading role in the new $39 million ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Molecular Imaging launched today at Monash University, with Professor Katharina Gaus, an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow, appointed its deputy director.

Professor Gaus, whose lab is part of UNSW’s Centre for Vascular Research, was awarded an Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowship this year from the NHMRC for her work using super-resolution microscopes to image molecular signalling in live t-cells. 

The next-generation technology, which won pioneers Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, can zoom down to a resolution 700 times smaller than a red blood cell.

Professor Gaus is using super-resolution microscopes to catalogue what she describes as the “molecular rules” governing why cells behave the way they do. Her work focuses on t-cells, the frontline soldiers of our immune systems, and what switches them on or off.

“By understanding that decision-making process, we hope to develop drugs and other treatments for over or under-active t-cells in conditions such as autoimmune disease or cancers,” said Professor Gaus.

The flagship European Molecular Biology Laboratory announced last month that it would open a node at the University as part of UNSW’s Single Molecule Science initiative led by Professor Gaus.

Researchers at the new ARC Centre have already uncovered one of the molecular triggers for coeliac disease, an autoimmune response to gluten in the small intestine, and shown how viruses can lie dormant in the body for decades by hiding behind fake human “self” proteins.

The Centre brings together physicists, chemists and biologists from five universities, hoping to answer some of the fundamental questions about immune system function in areas as diverse as organ transplants, cancer, diabetes and other autoimmune diseases.

Researchers will use existing technology including the $200 million Australian Synchrotron particle accelerator and Europe’s 3.4-kilometre X-ray Free-Electron Laser in Germany, as well as advanced microscopes at UNSW and other partner universities - Monash, Melbourne, La Trobe and Queensland.

They will also develop new microscopes as part of their work, which is supported by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the Synchrotron, the UK’s University of Warwick, Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron in Germany, Carl Zeiss Pty Ltd and Leica Microsystems Pty Ltd.