Scientist rubs shoulders with celebrities
Celebrated Australian scientist Dr Mark Hutchinson owes a huge debt to his grandmother.
If not for her, the 28-year-old graduate from the University of Adelaide would not have attracted world attention for his research into morphine addiction.
Dr Hutchinson was awarded an American-Australian Association Fellowship in 2005, receiving his accolade from Rupert Murdoch AC, Chairman and Chief Executive of the News Corporation, in New York.
Now living in Boulder, Colorado, Dr Hutchinson graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree with First Class Honours from the University of Adelaide in 1999, majoring in microbiology, immunology and pharmacology.
The former Pulteney Grammar student just scraped into university after a severe battle with chronic fatigue syndrome in his teenage years. It was his grandmother who suggested he study Molecular and Cellular Biology as a first year subject.
"My fascination with biological subjects was sparked from the outset," Dr Hutchinson said. "My initial grades were not great, but every year they improved."
Dr Hutchinson did Honours with Professor Andrew Somogyi in the pharmacology department and excelled under his supervision.
"For my PhD I wanted to combine immunology and pharmacology. My interest with opioid medications and pain relief in association with immunology led to a project to investigate opioid modulation of immune function.
"In hindsight, the manner in which Professor Somogyi and I approached this question was quite revolutionary. I did a systematic evaluation of more than 50 different opioid compounds and what they did to the immune cells in tissue culture.
"Amazingly, this initial work has become even more relevant today."
Dr Hutchinson looked at morphine, heroin, codeine and methadone and how they modulate peripheral immune cell function.
"I found that these drugs modify immune cells in a very different way to the action they have on nerves. I had no idea of the significant implications this could have--until now," he said.
The second project Dr Hutchinson worked on with Professor Somogyi looked at the response of human immune cells in blood to morphine exposure in tissue culture.
"We found that the degree to which immune cells responded to morphine in cell culture was highly related to the person's pain tolerance. This was a substantial departure from the common belief that nerves control pain."
With this data and the published material resulting from it, Dr Hutchinson was awarded the Australian Fresh Science Award.
"It was this award which opened my eyes to the fact that I needed to make my research relevant and available to the general public and not just the scientific community."
Dr Hutchinson's findings led to a new direction in his research--studying the immune cells in the brain, known as glia.
It made sense to contact the world expert on glia and pain, Professor Linda Watkins, who is based at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Dr Hutchinson organised a meeting with Professor Watkins and presented a seminar during a trip to the US in 2003 for a Society for Neuroscience conference.
The rest is history.
Dr Hutchinson's wife, Amanda, was completing her Masters in Clinical Psychology at the University of Adelaide at the same time and wanted to further her research opportunities in neuropsychology.
In a twist of fate Amanda learned that a world leader in neuropsychology, Professor Marie Banich, was head of the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado.
Amanda is now doing her PhD externally from the University of Adelaide's School of Psychology under the supervision of Associate Professor Jane Mathias and Professor Marie Banich.
In order to relocate to the US, Dr Hutchinson required funding and was successful in being awarded a grant from the International Association for the Study of Pain, as well as an American-Australian Association (AAA) Fellowship. He is the 2005 AAA Merck Company Foundation Fellow.
"The AAA funding has opened doors I never thought any medical scientist from Adelaide would enjoy and it has provided a platform for my research to be heard by a wide range of people."
In November 2005 media mogul Rupert Murdoch presented the AAA Fellowship to Dr Hutchinson at a ceremony in New York. Two months later, Dr Hutchinson was asked to speak at the G'day LA Week gala dinner.
"This was an extraordinary experience as there were more than 1200 guests, including movie stars, political and business leaders. I met Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Eric Bana as well as various politicians, including Peter Costello."
Dr Hutchinson's current work involves studying the role of glia (immune cells in the brain) in a person's response to morphine.
"I am trying to understand why opioids do not work in some patients, why they lose their efficacy after multiple administrations, and even their role in reward, addiction and dependence to opioids.
"The exciting part of my work is that we are very strongly implicating glia in each of these processes. These findings have immense clinical implications. For example, we have been able to dramatically reduce the dependency to morphine by stopping glial activation.
"The work I did at the University of Adelaide on peripheral immune cells has led to amazing breakthroughs in our understanding of how opioids interact with glia," Dr Hutchinson said.
The Adelaide scientist is keen to return to his home town and continue his research at the University of Adelaide.
"Very few people in Australia are conducting glial research, so Adelaide has the perfect opportunity to become the Australian hub of glial research. I would hope to establish a collaborative team working in the field of neuroimmunopharmacology with glia central to this research," he said. ■
Story Candy Gibson