Cells harness the interplay between electrical, chemical and mechanical signals as well as their own shape to perform a variety of functions in our bodies. This interplay is what makes the heart beat and also enables cancer cells to dynamically change shape and migrate from a tumour to new regions of the body. By making new experimental measurements and developing innovative computational models, the Cell Structure and Mechanobiology group’s mission is to discover ways to manipulate or engineer this interplay to effect positive treatments for diseases of the heart, cancer metastasis and red blood cell diseases.

Current projects:

Mitochondrial dysfunction in diabetic cardiomyopathy

Approximately 80% of diabetic patients die of heart failure making diabetes-induced cardiomyopathy a significant aspect of patient care. As the disease causes significant stress to the function of cardiac mitochondria, we are investigating the interplay between mitochondrial function, cellular structure and contractile function in order to discover new molecular treatment strategies.

How does calcium make your heart grow?

Calcium plays a significant role in many aspects of cellular life. In the heart, calcium triggers cellular contraction at each heartbeat. This same calcium also purportedly sends signals to the nucleus to make the cell, and thus the heart, grow. This growth process is called hypertrophy and is triggered in pregnancy, long-term increase in demand due to life style changes and disease. Our aim in this project is to uncover the central mystery as to how calcium can play two roles at the same time – make the heart beat as well as make the heart grow.

Stopping cancer metastasis in tissue environments

Cancer metastasis begins with a tumor cell separating from a primary tumor, traveling through the blood stream, and spreading to other tissues in the body where it can multiply to form secondary tumor sites. Early detection and stopping metastasis is critical to the survival of cancer patients. Our aim in this project is to develop a deep understanding of how tumor cells proceed to spread to other parts of the body.

Deformability of red blood cells in health and disease

Red blood cell stiffness has proven to be an important marker of disease. Parasites such as malaria modify the deformability of the red blood cell to survive filtration and immune systems within the host. Here we are measuring and modelling red blood cell structure and mechanics to understand how deformability changes in different conditions.

Improving outcomes for children with single ventricle heart disease

Each year, approximately 30 children are born in Australia with a form of congenital heart disease that means only one out of the two heart pumps (ventricles) is functionally viable. Currently, the best chance of survival comes with a series of three complex operations that result in a Fontan circulation, where a single ventricle pumps blood to the body and the major veins are connected directly to the pulmonary arteries to supply lung blood flow. Although medium-term survival is improving, these patients have reduced exercise capacity and a significant risk of heart failure. In this project, we are investigating the factors that affect ventricular mechanics and increase the risk of heart failure.