The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important it is for Australia to foster a healthy biotechnology industry, one that’s able to develop and manufacture vaccines, therapeutics and other biotech products on home soil.
The University of Queensland’s Protein Expression Facility (PEF) has been doing its share of the heavy lifting since 2004. That’s when Professor Linda Lua noted the need for a service that could collaborate with researchers to produce the high quality, synthetic proteins they needed to conduct discovery and translational projects.
“My background is in biological engineering and I was always interested in the idea of bringing science and business together,” Lua explains.
“I could see people having issues with making the proteins they needed in their labs and I decided the best way for me to support them, to accelerate their research and have impact, was to create a core enabling facility to do that piece of work for them.”
Fast forward 17 years and what started as a one-woman operation has become an internationally renowned service employing a team of 20 biotechnologists, with a diverse range of special interests and skills. Between them, they’ve assisted scientists and researchers from more than 20 universities and a string of pharmaceutical and biotech companies, in Australia and further afield, with over 4000 projects.
In early 2020, PEF stepped up to the plate when a public health organisation needed a supply of SARS-CoV-2 proteins, in order to develop a unique serology technology to safely screen patient antibodies for prior exposure to COVID-19.
“Because the coronavirus was novel, there was no off-the-shelf option so we had to very quickly identify the proteins that comprised it and make them in the lab,” Lua says.
“That’s the sort of request we specialise in – creating proteins for very specific applications.”
Other notable projects the Facility has been involved with include the development of diagnostic testing kits and vaccines for livestock and innovative approaches to crop protection; Queensland agriculture is a significant contributor to the economy.
Early this year, it was appointed a partner in a federally funded pilot initiative to produce high quality nucleic acids – RNA and DNA – to support the work of researchers nationally.
Increasing Australia’s capacity to produce mRNA vaccines and cancer therapeutics will reduce the country’s reliance on overseas supply chains and allow it to become more self-sufficient, Lua points out.
The Facility has also given hundreds of students a vital start in the industry, via an internship program which enables them to spend 1 or 2 semesters working alongside the PEF team in the lab.
“Upskilling the next generation – inspiring them to use science and technology to bring solutions for societal issues – increases the capability and capacity of our domestic biotech sector and reduces the likelihood of graduates going overseas and taking their expertise with them,” Lua says.
LSQ Chief Executive Clare Blain says PEF has provided an extraordinary service to Australia’s biotech sector.
“PEF team has contributed to the success of an enormous number of research projects, many of which have improved our national health and prosperity,” Blain says.
“The Facility is an outstanding training ground for young biotechnologists. We’re excited to support it as it continues to expand its capabilities.”