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The 2016 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Physical and Life Sciences -

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Robyn Williams: And later that day the Prime Minister welcomed a prize-winner who is also focusing on molecules but in a different way. Professor Richard Payne won the Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Science.

Tell me about your encounter with the Wollongong people. I know it's not the direct field as you've got but there's a kind of crossover, isn't there. You're looking at molecules and what you do with them.

Richard Payne: Yes, my lab is interested in molecules, and certainly the electron microscope is going to look at molecules. But my molecules are little bit smaller than those that you would look at on an electron microscope, but they are still big in terms of drug molecules I would say. So we are particularly interested in using molecules made by a range of different organisms in nature and using them as privileged starting points for the development of new drugs. And the drugs that we are trying to develop are for some of the world's deadliest diseases, for some of the poorest nations. So we are particularly interested in developing new drugs for tuberculosis, but also for malaria.

Robyn Williams: How would you do that, how would you develop new drugs rather than doing it the traditional way? Tuberculosis, for example, I think it was in 1943 that Albert Schatz was looking at fungus. And just like in penicillin you take a petri dish, you put the fungus in and it either kills the organism or it doesn't.

Richard Payne: Yes, at the end of the day in some ways we are looking back 50 years. Because if you look at the antibiotics that are currently used in the clinic, a large proportion of them are natural products or derivatives of natural products. So they are made by other bacteria, these molecules, to kill other bacteria that is living around them in the environment.

And so what we've said is, well, are there some natural products out there that haven't been discovered yet. And certainly the answer to that is yes and these are the types of molecules that we've been working on. But the key to our research is that we are really, really good at making complex molecules and we've developed a whole bunch of synthetic technologies that allow us to make molecules fast so that we can get answers fast. Is this molecule made by this soil bacterium going to be potentially used for treatment for tuberculosis? And we get that answer very quickly because we are not in the lab for five years trying to make the molecule, we can make it quickly in what's called a short number of steps. So my students and post docs aren't slaving away for years making a molecule anymore because the technologies that we've got to make the compounds are now brilliant, and that allows us to answer questions very quickly as to whether they are going to be drugs or not.

Robyn Williams: What's the secret of their brilliance?

Richard Payne: Well, I have to say that there is a little bit of luck involved when it comes to natural products. We look at the natural product first, we ask that question does it kill the bacterium that causes TB or does it kill the parasite that causes malaria in humans? And if it does, even if that activity is modest, we know that we can make it better because we are synthetic chemists, we are molecular engineers, we can build a molecule from the ground up, we can change its properties, we can change its stability, and we can certainly make it more active than what nature makes. And that's the great thing about being a synthetic chemist.

Robyn Williams: Any successes so far?

Richard Payne: In our malaria work we now have a compound that is finished in vivo trials in a malaria model, not in humans, and is looking very exciting. It completely cures malaria at a reasonable concentration, not too high, so that's really exciting. And we are about to move into our in vivo studies with a TB compound based on a molecule that was isolated from a soil bacterium. So we've got two stories that are really coming close to something that might actually translate.

Robyn Williams: And are the pharma, the industry people, staying in touch with you and waiting with bated ones?

Richard Payne: I have to say that the big pharmaceutical industry is not as interested in tuberculosis and malaria as maybe other types of conditions, just because obviously there's not a lot of financial gain in making drugs for the Third World, but there are also agencies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and also for malaria we have the Medicines for Malaria venture which also fund drug discovery projects. So there is funding available once you are at a stage where something could be translated, and these guys have actually got a lot of experience in translating drugs, and that's when we talk to them, when we've got a compound that we know could make it.

Robyn Williams: But even so, talking about TB, the numbers are varied throughout the world. Malaria is gigantic everywhere in the tropics.

Richard Payne: TB is still a massive problem. TB kills far more people every year than malaria, so 1.5 million people globally in 2014 died of TB. There were 9.6 million new infections, new TB infections. And a lot of people don't know this, it's pretty scary, but a third of the world's population live with the bacterium that causes TB in their lungs, and this is a big problem because the world has this enormous reservoir of the bacteria that causes TB. Only about 10% of those people carrying that bug will ever get TB, but this is an enormous problem, bigger than malaria, but malaria of course is still an enormous problem. So around three-quarters of a million people will die of malaria every year. And the biggest problem that we have is that there are drugs out there but they are all developed so long ago that there is now widespread resistance to TB drugs as well as malaria drugs. And so we really do need to new drugs coming to the market to be used in the clinic.

Robyn Williams: Congratulations.

Richard Payne: Thank you so much.

Robyn Williams: Richard Payne is professor of organic chemistry at the University of Sydney, winner of the Prime Minister's Prize for Physical Science. And the life science, the Fenner Prize, went to the future fellow Kerrie Wilson from the University of Queensland who flew in from Denmark.

When did you fly in from Denmark?

Kerrie Wilson: This morning, 9:15am.

Robyn Williams: When do you fly back to Denmark?

Kerrie Wilson: Tomorrow 6pm.

Robyn Williams: And that's to pick up your prize?

Kerrie Wilson: That's right, solely to pick up my prize.

Robyn Williams: How do you feel?

Kerrie Wilson: Running quickly.

Robyn Williams: Do you find it a bit of a surprise that you have been recognised for something that seems somewhat esoteric? In other words, you're trying to look at the dynamic, the cost, the importance of various ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain, which already that phrase sounded a bit heavyweight. Do you find it surprising that they recognise you like this?

Kerrie Wilson: Not at all. Sorry, I don't mean to sound egotistical, but Australia has 10% of the world's biodiversity. Australia, governments globally invest millions of dollars in protecting that biodiversity. My team, my collaborators work to identify ways that we can use that money in the best possible way to achieve outcomes.

Robyn Williams: How do you go around investigating that?

Kerrie Wilson: We look at what determines human behaviour, why people do what they do. We look at how organisations work together and how we can improve their collaboration. We look at what governments are investing in and try to develop rational ways to allocate that spending.

Robyn Williams: However, when a minister wants to come to see you, saying, 'What policy should we apply to this,' they want presumably instant answers, whereas you might want two years to investigate, if not more.

Kerrie Wilson: Well, I'm a researcher, I like to spend some time thinking deeply about questions. But we know enough, to be honest, to make quick decisions about what are the key issues that that policy maker needs to be addressing now in order to revert the loss of biodiversity.

Robyn Williams: Give me an example of some of the things you've done.

Kerrie Wilson: Right. For example, I work closely with a dear colleague of mine, Erik Meijaard. Erik has lived in Indonesian Borneo. So what we've done, our team, Erik brought together all the data on orangutans, for example, all the data that has ever been collected, and we've analysed that data to determine how threatened is that species. That's resulted in that species being listed as more threatened as what it was before. Clearly a priority. It didn't take two years.

Robyn Williams: Did they take any notice of you?

Kerrie Wilson: Yes, the IUCN, the peak environmental body, has reclassified the status of that species as a result of our analysis.

Robyn Williams: How many people like yourself are there around the world doing that sort of thing that decision-makers really can rely on?

Kerrie Wilson: Well, Australia is the epicentre of the work that we do. Australia boasts leadership in this field, that's reflected in our university rankings in the discipline of ecology environmental science. UQ is now ranked number three in the world in that discipline, it's one of the highest rankings that we have.

Robyn Williams: Thank you. Go and collect your prize and congratulations.

Kerrie Wilson: Thank you very much.

Robyn Williams: So now you can assess all the metrics of a system in nature, and Kerrie and friends can tell you the cost and the worth of looking after it. Winner of the Prime Minister's Prize for Life Sciences, the Fenner. More such prizes next week.