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Powerful imagery to aid development of new drugs -

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Robyn Williams: And so back to Parliament House in Canberra where we were last week. That's where the Prime Minister helped the University of Wollongong launch their $80 million mighty microscope facility. A university with its own 3D printing connections incidentally. This is distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen on why they need Titan.

Antoine van Oijen: The way drugs are developed, often very successfully, is really by trial and error. Researchers in the lab try to mimic a disease-related process, and they throw at it thousands of different molecules and see which one works. And that's something that we really want to change by understanding what these molecules do, and it's almost like picking a lock, by trial and error using a paperclip to find your way inside. And instead you really want to visualise how the inside of the lock looks like so you can design a key. And that's what we are trying to do here at the molecular level.

Robyn Williams: And this Titan microscope is looking at the actual molecules for you, is it?

Antoine van Oijen: The Titan microscope is using electron beams to visualise the individual protein molecules. So you can take snapshots now of these deep frozen protein molecules and visualise down to the atomic detail exactly what they look like. And that's the information you need to develop new and better drugs.

Robyn Williams: How does knowing their shape tell you how to take on the disease?

Antoine van Oijen: Drug molecules work by directly binding to proteins, the proteins in our cells that have a role in a disease mechanism. And you keep the disease in check by having a drug molecule that physically binds to it. So knowing the exact shape, the nooks and crannies on the surface of a protein, allows you to design a molecule that exactly fits like a lock and a key to make the drug work.

Robyn Williams: Is this three-metre, this gigantic machine, in the country yet, at Wollongong yet?

Antoine van Oijen: It's not. We are about to start a new building that will take probably two years, but we will be receiving in a few months already at the University of Wollongong a slightly smaller brother of this Titan Krios microscope that will start to allow us to develop the expertise and the capacity at the university to start doing these experiments.

Robyn Williams: And how long does it take? If you want to make a film of this sort of reaction, does it take hours, does it take seconds? Because femtoseconds means tiny fractions of a second during which a reaction takes place. Will you be taking films like that?

Antoine van Oijen: This microscope will take static snapshots, pictures. So we deep freeze the proteins and we take literally hundreds of thousands of individual images of these single proteins, and then we average those hundreds of thousands of images to end up with a crystal clear picture of what an individual protein looks like.

Robyn Williams: Will you be sharing this machine with other people?

Antoine van Oijen: That's the whole plan of the enterprise. We are investing here in this equipment at the University of Wollongong to provide access to this high-tech infrastructure to our colleagues within Australia and also overseas to make sure that the important research gets done at an international level.

Robyn Williams: Will you be having anything to do with your friends, Gordon Wallace for example? There is about 100 of the innovators who are doing 3D printing of body parts even, muscles and nerves. I can just see a conjunction between you looking at the molecules and them making some of the molecules to make parts of the body.

Antoine van Oijen: We absolutely want to improve our relationships with the material scientists, not only on the University of Wollongong campus but also outside. Within the material sciences people like Gordon Wallace are developing more and more biologically relevant novel materials, and also there, seeing is believing. You want to be able to visualise how these molecules look like, so we look forward to working with Gordon and his team.

Robyn Williams: Finally the Prime Minister was congratulating you on not only the enterprise, not only the innovation but funding it yourself. Do you think he was especially impressed by that part?

Antoine van Oijen: I think it's a very wise and strategic move of the university to come up with the capital investment themselves to get the game going. But of course we will be looking at the federal government and the state government with their heart fully into innovation and research to help us out as we go forward.

Robyn Williams: Once you've got the attention, keep going.

Antoine van Oijen: Absolutely.

Robyn Williams: Thank you. Molecules in close-up. Distinguished Professor Antoine van Oijen, the University of Wollongong.