Adventures in chemistry

Mon, 17 Aug 2009 10:00:00 +1000

The award-winning research project that brought Dr Luke Henderson from Oxford to Deakin University entitled "Antibiotics Inspired by Nature" has, over the past year, evolved into what he describes now as "An Adventure into Organic Synthesis: From Antibiotics to Organocatalysts."

It's exciting work, but you don't need to spend too much time in his crowded office on the fifth floor of the Science Building on the Geelong Campus at Waurn Ponds to know that one chemistry adventure barely touches the sides for this talented young researcher.

His career has already taken him from sunny Queensland to the dreaming spires before landing him at Deakin, where he is one of the inaugural Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship holders. There's also a hint of Africa to come.

But first to his Alfred Deakin Postdoc research which has won him, along with Dr Fred Pfeffer, the Smart Geelong Research of the Year Award.

With Dr Pfeffer he is working on a project cum adventure succinctly defined in the advertisement for the position as studying "nature inspired antibiotics".

"We are developing antibiotics that are effective against resistant strains of bacteria, the so-called superbugs," Dr Henderson said.

"Several of these gram negative bacteria are resistant to all known antibiotics and can cause septic shock - possibly leading to death."

Dr Pfeffer has already applied for a patent for the compounds he and Dr Henderson have created and several high impact publications are in the pipeline.

All of which is not bad for someone who wanted to be a medical doctor when he left school - and a physicist at the end of his undergraduate studies.

These days though Luke Henderson is very much the committed chemist – one determined to cover all spectrums of the science.

"Why I chose chemistry is an interesting question," he said.

"I suppose I have always understood chemistry pretty well. It has never really felt like work. Rather it is something I really like being part of.

"I am keen on all the areas of chemistry and at this stage in my career it is good to experience the broad nature of chemistry though still specialising in a few key areas such as medicinal chemistry and catalysis. The work I am doing here at Deakin is different to what I was doing at Oxford, and different again to my PhD at Griffith University giving me a good base understanding of chemistry and its diverse areas.

"Someone said to me once that the really interesting science takes place when you have a discipline and within that you have 50 disciplines where people all interact and collaborate together."

"That's where the really key connections start getting made."

With that in mind, Dr Henderson is also keen to reach out beyond the company of chemists.

Deakin's new Institute for Technology Research and Innovation, a five-minute walk from his office, is a hot bed of inter-disciplinary research.

"I am keen to talk to some of the people in ITRI about working in areas like nanotechnology and also in advanced materials," he said. "I know from other chemists like Fred and Neil (Dr Fred Pfeffer and Professor Neil Barnett) that there is some really good science going on which we can also get involved in."

Dr Henderson said the offer of an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship had proven irresistible as his postdoc studies at Oxford reached their natural conclusion.

"My supervisor at Oxford forwarded me the advertisement for the Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowships," he said.

"I guess my first thought was you beauty, I can go home to Australia."

"It was also nice to get a postdoctoral position that had a name to it. That means something too."

As well as the original project that brought him to Deakin, Dr Henderson has been busily building a broader profile of research – more adventures.

"Fred and I have very complementary interests," he said. "He has allowed me to continue to work in some of my other areas and that has been fantastic.

"I am supervising two honours students and co-supervising a number of other PhD and honours students.

"We've got some very exciting things going on there, too, especially in the area of gene delivery agents.

"This work could lead to some exciting breakthroughs in the way we treat diseases like cystic fibrosis and cancer."

Another project looks to African mistletoe as a lead for new anti-hypertensive treatments.

"In Africa medicine men have given the African mistletoe to people for a long time," he explains.

"With Griffith University's Heart Foundation Research Centre, we are working on synthesising, evaluating and optimising the active ingredient in the mistletoe."

With the wilds of Africa beckoning it's not hard to see why Luke Henderson regards his research as one big adventure.


Dr Luke Henderson and Dr Fred Pfeffer (right)
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20th August 2012