Infectious diseases continue to be some of the world’s most significant health challenges. The Institute for Glycomics’ research into viral infections seeks to understand how sugars/carbohydrates impact viruses. This knowledge aids the identification and development of new drugs that will treat and cure these diseases.
As part of this research into viral infections, Associate Professor Thomas Haselhorst has pioneered Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy techniques to shed light on how glycans (sugar modules) and viruses interact. We chat with him to learn more about his research and NMR.
From Germany to the Gold Coast, what led you to the Institute for Glycomics?
After finishing my PhD at the Medical University Lübeck, Germany, I applied for the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship which enables recipients to travel internationally within the Humboldt Foundation network to further their research. I approached Professor Mark von Itzstein, who is also a von Humboldt Fellow, about working in the Institute for Glycomics and we worked out a research program together. A few months later I started at the Gold Coast—and never left.
The Institute has grown so much over the last 20 years and continues to be a state-of-the-art research facility enabling collaboration across a broad range of disciplines. The Gold Coast campus also has grown with new buildings and infrastructure and many more students.
What is your area of research?
Though a chemist by training, I am more a structural biologist researching how viruses interact with certain glycan-based cells in the body. My team and I have pioneered the use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to assess structures and to identify solutions relevant to viral infections. Essentially, we were the first to take whole viruses apart in the same environment as the cell receptor glycans to see which glycan the virus likes. For instance, when the avian (bird) flu was a problem in Asia we took the avian influenza virus-like particles and gave the virus a choice to bind to either bird or human glycans. With NMR spectroscopy we were able to show that the avian flu viruses preferred binding to bird glycans hence confirming it wasn’t transmittable from human to human.
Recently our work involves the development of drug delivery systems for the treatment of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and of novel drugs for HIV and antifungal therapies. One of my current PhD students, who is researching fungal disease in immune compromised patients, is trying to develop a novel antifungal treatment. This is a very pressing issue as some funguses are becoming drug resistant and current drugs are failing. The hope is to identify an anti-fungal drug which can be developed for market and used in the clinic.
How have you increased the impact of your research?
Writing articles for peer reviewed high-quality scientific journals is of critical importance. I have authored more than 50 journal articles, three book chapters and numerous conference abstracts. This body of work is one of the stepping-stones to successful grant applications. I also review many scientific articles for high-impact journals and currently I am on an editorial board.
Given the currency of research, I find attendance at conferences highly valuable. Conferences are immediate and many ideas result from presentations and from other researchers talking to you about their ideas and collaboration opportunities.
What advice do you have for researchers?
If you have a passion and an open mind, and you have a goal and career that interests you, then go for it—nothing can stop you. People talk about good or bad environments but really if you are passionate these aren’t obstacles, just challenges that can be overcome.
Developing broad communication channels—with fellow researchers, supervisors, international colleagues—and keeping them open is vital.
And finally, research isn’t about competing but about building collaborations; by joining forces you may come up with something even greater and you will never stop learning.