Why a world-renowned scientist believes Murdoch is one of the best shots at translating phenomic research into real-world medical solutions.Having spent more than 30 years as an internationally respected pioneer of metabolic spectroscopy and phenomics, Professor Jeremy Nicholson says phenome research may be on the cusp of fulfilling its promise in both preventative and personalised medicine.
It’s that opportunity which has seen the highly decorated scientist, known for developing metabolic profiling, relocate from the Imperial College London to take up the role of Pro Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences at Murdoch University and Director of the newly launched Australian National Phenome Centre (ANPC).
“There were people that questioned why I would leave the Imperial, particularly given its excellence in scientific research and where I had been so successful,” says Nicholson.
“However, what Murdoch has done in backing and setting up the ANPC shows how a smaller university with vision and focus can be impactful in a world-leading sense. It’s impressive.
“What we’ve created is a set of conditions to enable world-class population and clinical phenomic research, and also translate that into the real-life medical practice.
“It’s that translation piece which will help make preventative and personalised medicine a reality.”
Life of scienceNicholson, an honorary professor at 12 universities and Emeritus Professor of Biological Chemistry at Imperial College London, has taken a varied path to become the world’s leading expert on molecular phenomics.
His work has been deliberately broad, often bringing together different disciplines, including chemistry, toxicology, biochemistry, pharmacology, spectroscopy and medicine.
“I was just seven when I first saw a flow-chart on the industrial and chemical uses of coal on the classroom wall, and the teacher explained it. It was cool and I knew then I wanted to be a scientist.
“Science is one of the things that only humans do, where examinable truth becomes actionable for the common good.
“I’ve always been interested in all types of science, so I’ve just done my thing, although my work has always revolved around molecular science in some shape.”
After joining Imperial at the age of 35 in 1998, already a professor of six years standing, Nicholson first set about creating a chemistry research unit inside the medical faculty.
“That was really the start of embedding and connecting chemistry to medicine, and we built that lab up over the years, bringing high-end clinical science, spectroscopy and diagnostics together into a working medical environment.”
This become of strategic importance when Nicholson became Head of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial in 2009.
In 2012, the London Olympic Games arrived, requiring high-level drug testing facilities. Off the back of that, Nicholson saw an opportunity.
“The drug-testing lab had been working at a forensic level, evaluating around 300 assays in eight hours as part of the testing program.
“However, once the Olympics were over, the question was, what do to with the lab? We managed to put together a business case and win the backing of the UK Prime Minister to repurpose that testing facility into the world’s first national phenome centre, addressing problems in health.”
Phenomics and MurdochPhenomic research is a fascinating area of multi-disciplinary science that impacts both broader health and environmental patterns and creates highly individualised outcomes.
“Phenomic research identifies how genes and the environment come together to create disease risks. And then how that can be prevented. Diabetes, which is sweeping the world, is a good example. If we can understand the drivers for it in different places, we can prevent it at global scale.
“At an individual level, phenomics can identify why some diets work for some people and not others. Or why some immune suppressant treatments work for some cancer patients and not others.”
After Murdoch University approached Nicholson for help in setting up a phenome centre, he realised the ANPC offered some unique opportunities.
“To do translatable science, many things need to come together. There needs to be the opportunity, the environment, the driver and the people at the right level who see the vision and back it. All those things are aligned here.
“Murdoch is an applied science university and does that really well. And food, environment and health are what phenomes is all about.
“The ANPC has also been set up in collaboration with other WA universities and international phenome centres.
“It is also positioned right next door to the Fiona Stanley, which is one of Australia’s best hospitals, so we can develop new clinical research paradigms.
“Plus we have the backing of all levels of government here. The importance of that cannot be understated if science is to be impactful. It means we have the best chance to make a difference.”
Western Australia’s contained population also makes it ideal to do statistically relevant research with national and globally relevance.
“If you’re able to study one million of WA’s 2.3 million people, that’s more statistically valuable than half a million of the UK’s 67 million, which is the current UK Biobank.
“Plus the WA population lives in a more uniform climate and eats similarly sourced food, so we know a fair bit about the environmental impacts.
“It’s the perfect conditions to study humans in their total environment.”
Tackling global challengesOne of the first ANPC projects is a 10-year research program into food chemistry, quality and nutritional outcomes.
“We’ll be looking at food production from end to end, including its health impacts.
“So as well as being able to optimise food production to get the best quality food, we will be able to demonstrate how nutrition impacts people, and be able to make genuine claims about the health and nutrition of food. Can you even imagine the health and economics benefits of that?”
Nicholson’s appointment has attracted other notable international researchers to the ANPC, including computational biologist Professor Elaine Holmes, ensuring the minds in the new laboratory are second to none.
“At the ANPC our focus is on solving world-class problems, collaborating with others to work on things that really matter.
“We’re all on this planet together, and there are so many issues that many different societies face, from diabetes to climate change. The work we do here really is for everyone.”