13 June 2014

When Professor Kathy Belov commenced an ARC Future  Fellowship in 2009 she dared to dream where the research path would lead her, but never thought she would achieve the outcomes—scientifically and  personally—that she did in just five years.

Professor Belov was an inaugural Future Fellow and that  Future Fellowship has now gone full circle; five years of dedicated research, with $686 000 in ARC support to understand the genetic nature of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

DFTD is a contagious cancer which is devastating Australia’s Tasmanian devil population. Professor Belov is determined to find a way forward in the conservation management of the iconic marsupial.

“I’m quite passionate about trying to understand this cancer and help the devil—and I think we’re making really good progress towards that,” she said.

“It’s been really important to have financial support to be able to do that—the ARC Future Fellowship plus a number of other grants have made it possible to do this research properly.”

After five years of dedicated research looking into the genetic nature of DFTD resistance, Professor Belov and her highly committed team now know so much more about the devil and this disease.         

Her team has characterised the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) region of the devil—a  key region of the genome involved in immune response—and shown that genetic diversity at the MHC is low.         

At the time Professor Belov wrote her project application, she hypothesized that animals with divergent MHC types may be resistant to the disease. She ended up disproving that hypothesis and turned her research towards studying the immune system more  broadly.

The concept of resistance to this cancer remains unconfirmed. The outcomes of the Future Fellowship have solidified in Professor Belov’s mind that keeping devils away from the disease is the best current strategy for saving the species from  extinction—in the meantime, the research continues.

“We want to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction, so all of this work is going towards that,” Professor Belov  said.

Professor Belov is highly regarded within the research community and her work in the discipline is recognised around the globe.

As part of her Future Fellowship, she travelled to the Benaroya Research Institute in the US to construct two Tasmanian devil Bacterial Artificial Chromosome libraries—these genetic  libraries hold large fragments of Tasmanian devil DNA and allowed Professor Belov’s team to characterise the gene-dense, complex MHC region.

Professor Belov has also received a great number of invitations to speak at both national and international conferences. In  2012, she was invited onto the Governance Board of the Allan Wilson Centre for  Molecular Ecology and Evolution, one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence. In 2013, she was awarded the Crozier Medal by the Genetics Society of Australasia and this year she was awarded the Fenner Medal by the Australian Academy of Science.

Professor Belov has also become a mentor and leader in her field with many requests for students to come and work in her laboratory. Last year, she had  five early-career researchers apply for fellowships to come and work in her lab.

Professor Belov attributes her increased visibility and reputation to her Future Fellowship. 

“I’m also now Associate Dean of Research in my faculty—I sit on the University’s Senior Executive Group Research  Committee and I was a member of the ARC College of Experts.

“I’ve had all of these amazing opportunities in the research space in Australia. If I was in a traditional teaching role, I don’t think I would have been asked to take on all of these great responsibilities.” 

And while her Fellowship—that has been so vital for her research—has now finished, the future is bright for Professor Belov.

“The  Future Fellowship has been really important for my research as it has given me time to establish myself.

“During  that period, I was also successful in obtaining three other Discovery Projects grants and two Linkage Projects grants. This has really given me time to build my team and I have a very strong team that is working on  a range of things—not just research into the Tasmanian devil.

“We also have  research in progress on the platypus, the tammar wallaby, koala and a range of different reptiles, frogs and toads. The Future Fellowship has definitely helped me to get where I want to go.”

Professor  Belov’s ultimate research goal is to use the research she conducts to improve our understanding of both the health and diseases of our native animals—but  also of humans through comparative studies.

More recently, Professor Belov and her team have begun characterising novel antimicrobial peptides from marsupials and monotremes.

These peptides play an important role in protecting immunologically naive joeys. Professor Belov’s team has shown that they are potent antibiotics and hold great potential for treating human and animal multi-drug resistant infections.

It is her hope that one day humans will benefit from the discoveries she makes in basic research on Australia’s native wildlife.

For more information about Professor  Belov’s research please contact The University of Sydney.


Image: Professor Kathy Belov holding an infant Tasmanian devil. Image courtesy: Professor Kathy Belov.