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Featured News Wrigglers, the reef and cyclone readiness – JCU’s Advance Queensland Fellows

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Wed, 20 Apr 2016

Wrigglers, the reef and cyclone readiness – JCU’s Advance Queensland Fellows

Paul Giacomin with parasitic worms in a petri dish
Spaghetti, anyone?Dr Paul Giacomin with parasitic worms. Infecting coeliac patients with hookworms (much smaller than the parasites pictured) enabled them to eat a medium-sized bowl of pasta daily, with no ill effects. Photo: Romy Bullerjahn

Advance Queensland Fellowships presented at Parliament House in Brisbane today will support James Cook University researchers working to improve the health of coeliac patients, protect the Great Barrier Reef, and help home owners better prepare for extreme wind events.

Dr Paul Giacomin, an immunologist based at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University in Cairns, has received a mid-career fellowship to support his research into the use of hookworm proteins to treat coeliac disease.

His Fellowship funds of $300,000 over three years will be matched by $150,000 from the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) and $150,000 from the Prince Charles Hospital Foundation.

Dr Giacomin’s research focuses on coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes an inflammatory reaction and severe intestinal symptoms when gluten is ingested.

In a recent trial Dr Giacomin and colleagues were able to demonstrate that infecting coeliac patients with parasitic worms enabled them to eat a medium-sized bowl of pasta daily, with no ill effects.

“That amount of gluten would usually trigger debilitating symptoms for anyone with coeliac disease,” he said.

“It might seem like an unlikely remedy, but we know that parasitic worms are able to survive in the human gut by dialling back our immune response. This research puts that ability to work against coeliac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder.”

The Advance Queensland Fellowship will enable Dr Giacomin and colleagues to run a larger study, with 60 participants in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial at Queensland hospitals.

Dr Daniel Smith, a research fellow with the Cyclone Testing Station at James Cook University in Townsville, has received an early-career Fellowship, with $180,000 over three years to support his work on a smartphone app to help residents in wind-prone areas assess their risk of wind damage, and make decisions as to what mitigation work they could undertake to reduce their risk.

His Fellowship funds of $180,000 over three years will be matched by $180,000 from Suncorp Insurance, whose data on insurance claims from wind-prone areas will help inform the research.

“In collaboration with the University of Florida in the United States and with Suncorp in Australia, I’m developing the prototype of a smartphone app called ResilientResidence. My aim is to put wind engineering research directly into the hands of homeowners in vulnerable regions,” Dr Smith said.

“It will be a planning and decision-making tool that helps people choose what actions to take to mitigate risk to themselves and their homes.

“There are some simple, low-cost mitigation actions that can pay for themselves after just one cyclone. With others, the cost-benefit calculation is more complex. This app will guide people through those decisions.”

Dr Smith will also be working closely with JCU behavioural science researchers to develop an understanding of what motivates different people to take action to mitigate their risk.

“We know from our earlier studies that there’s no one-size-fits-all motivating factor. Willingness to prepare for cyclone season and to make mitigating changes to your home differs between individuals and between communities,” he said.

Dr Zoe Bainbridge will receive an early-career fellowship, with $180,000 over three years to support her work to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Bainbridge, who will be based at JCU’s TropWATER centre in Townsville, will investigate the sources, transformation and dispersal of fine sediments that can damage the health of inshore reef and seagrass ecosystems.

Two PhD students also received Advance Queensland Scholarships: Samantha Aird will investigate human predation on key shellfish and fin-fish species in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Bettina Glasl will research the potential of microorganisms as early indicators of ecosystem health.

Media enquiries: Daniel Smith and Paul Giacomin are available for interview. Please contact Linden Woodward 04 1979 1564.