Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation Honours, grants

Catriona McLean (Photo: Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation)

Professor Catriona McLean AO received the prestigious Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation Medal for her remarkable contribution to neuropathology services and research over several decades despite facing multiple obstacles.

Catriona McLean is a Professor at Monash University and has been Head of the Department of Anatomical Pathology at The Alfred since 2005. She also holds many other appointments including as Director of the Victorian Brain Bank at the Florey, Director of the Victorian Neuromuscular Service, and is a pathologist at the Victorian Melanoma Service.

Prof McLean is a dedicated neuropathologist with a special interest in brain and muscle pathology, particularly rare diseases. She is widely respected for her contribution to clinical medicine, her excellence in research (having published more than 500 papers which are highly cited worldwide), and is in constant demand to collaborate on national and international research projects into malignancies, muscle disorders and neurodegeneration. In 2019 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to medicine in the field of academic and clinical neuropathology, and as a role model and mentor.

Her achievements are all the more remarkable given the fact that she has done this while raising four children and often worked in a purely honorary capacity given the lack of funding for her field of neuropathology.

Accepting the medal from her Monash colleague Professor Amy Brodtmann, Prof McLean reflected on her career and emphasised the need for neuropathology funding: “I hope more than anything that I have helped patients and their families and inspired other doctors and scientists to continue this important work and lobby for state support”.

Two researchers, Professor Patrick Kwan (Department of Neuroscience) and Dr Rong Xu (Australian Centre for Blood Diseases), were also awarded $50,000 grants each from the Foundation for projects seeking to improve treatment for people who have suffered acute strokes.

Acute stroke is an emergency condition which can result in brain damage and loss of neurological function and is a leading cause of death worldwide. When a patient presents with an acute stroke, it is of fundamental importance to determine whether the stroke is due to brain ischaemia (blockage of an artery) or haemorrhage (a bleed) because they require very different treatment approaches. In most settings this requires transporting the patient to a hospital for a brain scan, causing delay in treatment and poorer outcomes.

“What we need is a point-of-care blood test to differentiate between acute ischaemic and hemorrhagic stroke,” Prof Kwan explained. “This project aims to develop a simple, rapid, low cost, point-of-care test to measure the blood level of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), a brain-specific protein that rises more rapidly and to higher levels in patients with haemorrhagic compared to ischaemic stroke. The test may be done by paramedics to guide treatment initiation and transfer of the patient to dedicated hospitals for further management.” Other project team members are Professors Stan Skafidas (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering) and Bernard Yan (Department of Medicine) at the University of Melbourne, and Dr Zikri Halim (Department of Neuroscience) at Monash University.

Dr Xu’s project will focus on acute ischemic strokes (AIS) and investigate a clot-busting and brain-rejuvenating nanoparticle as a potential treatment.

In AIS, the brain suddenly loses blood supply due to a cerebral blood clot. Breakdown of the obstructing blood clot is urgently required to restore blood flow, oxygen and nutrients supplies to the brain. However, sudden oxygen restoration can inflict further damage to the brain, also known as ‘reperfusion injury’. Given that post-stroke outcomes worsen when medical intervention is delayed, the probability of successful treatment for remote patients is severely diminished. Overall, there is an urgent need to develop better stroke treatments.

“The concept of the ‘fountain of youth’ that lies in young blood has long mystified humanity,” Dr Xu said. “Recently, a breakthrough discovery has demonstrated that an ageing brain tissue could become young again by the infusion of young blood, or young blood components, like exosomes. Exosomes are tiny particles naturally secreted by all cells, which represent a promising constituent of young blood with potent biological activities.

“Earlier this year, we reported the positive effects of a new, platelet-targeted clot-busting agent termed ‘SCE5-scuPA’ in experimental stroke models. We also found that young blood exosomes prevent brain injury and can serve as novel, exciting therapeutic candidates to protect the brain during stroke. Here, we seek to combine SCE5-scuPA and young blood exosomes to form a superior stroke treating agent that ‘hits two birds in one stone’, as it simultaneously restores blood supply to the brain while actively preserving brain tissue. This innovative approach may offer stroke patients a more effective treatment option that could eventually improve their quality of life.” Other team members are Prof. Christoph Hagemeyer, Dr. Be`eri Niego, and Ms Anukreity Ale (Australian Centre for Blood Diseases) at Monash University.

The Bethlehem Griffiths Research Foundation provides funding support for vital research into progressive neurological disorders (such as Multiple Sclerosis, Motor Neuron Disease (MND), Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's Disease), stroke and palliative care. Established in 1994, the Foundation has provided more than $7 million for new methods of treatment to alleviate suffering.