The Accidental Parasitologist
Although Doctor Michael Smout likes to call himself an “accidental parasitologist,” seeing the impassioned researcher excitedly present his work makes it hard to imagine he’d ever do anything else. Towards the end of his Honour’s project, Michael had a particularly nasty bicycle accident, delaying his hand-in date. He missed a window of opportunity for job applications, and it was only through a series of professional co-incidences that he found himself working in the field of parasitology.
Aside from his more traditional academic projects, Michael makes time for outreach work to share his findings, and, of course, his love of worms. He first got involved with with public engagement when he entered the international FameLab science presentation competition. And conquer he did - Michael, equipped with his handy worm props and magic tricks, was the 2014 Australian FameLab winner. Since then, he’s been on podcasts with Dr Karl, given a TEDx talk and even presented in the Splendour in the Grass Science Tent.
As well as number of professional accolades, the parasitologist has a more rare achievement under his belt. From working on vital basic, or “blue-sky”, science, he’s translating his work into a project with commercial and health-care implications.
The Thai liver fluke may not be widely known in Australia, but in certain areas of Thailand, people are all too aware of the parasite. The worm actually causes liver cancer, and unfortunately it can find it’s way into the Thai food chain all too easily due to popular raw-fish delicacies.
Michael started working on the worm as part of his PhD project, and began to try and characterise the “active ingredients” in its cancer-causing capability. After many months of trouble-shooting in the lab, Michael was able to isolate a protein belonging to the granulin protein family. Although this family of proteins has been intensively studied, this particular worm-spit protein was still a stranger to the scientific community. It promotes cell proliferation, which is a major factor in cancer development. However, Michael realised that the granulin protein could actually be used to benefit human health, if only it could be applied in a different context.
Most people are unlikely to stop and consider how amazing our skin’s ability to self-heal is. Indeed, after Michael’s cycling accident he took it for granted that eventually his face would stop bleeding, and that the scabs would disappear. Unfortunately though, for those with wound healing deficiencies, even small cuts can develop into chronic and life-threatening injuries.
But what if we could use drugs - instead of the patient’s immune system alone - to encourage skin to heal?
Michael set about trying to genetically engineer harmless bacterial cells to make the protein - but it was an extremely laborious process, taking up to six weeks to generate a single batch. He teamed up with the synthetic peptide synthesis team of Professor Norelle Daly, and they worked together to develop novel wound healing compounds based on the original fluke-protein structure.
Currently, Michael and his collaborators are hunting for partners to help bring this novel treatment to the pharmacy shelf. Alas, the road from bench to bedside is long and arduous, but the team are looking to bring supercharged wound healing to the millions of patients who need it by 2025.