The structure of a high-density lipoprotein molecule. Credit: CNBP

Boat trips aren’t always plain sailing. But for Dr Christina Bursill, stepping on board was the start of a journey into exciting, unchartered research waters, an unexpected international collaboration and future possibilities for both cardiovascular health and wound care.

New to the team as Chief Investigator of Vascular Health, Bursill attended her first Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) boat conference in 2017, a voyage between Sydney and Melbourne, to spend 4 days getting to know her shipmates and the diverse work they do. But she never expected to make such a fruitful connection with a CNBP international partner investigator so soon.

Dr Gang Zheng is based at the University of Toronto. His work in porphysome nanoparticles has provided breakthrough imaging and treatment options to combat cancer. But until he encountered Dr Bursill and the work she was doing in early detection and treatment of heart disease, collaboration in the cardiovascular space wasn’t on the radar.

‘At this conference, we all had to present a poster and mine was a background on the models that we use for atherosclerosis, which included work I was doing on HDL cholesterol. From that, Gang was really excited because I think he wanted to test his special porphysome nanoparticles in the cardiovascular field, which had never been done before,’ Dr Bursill explains.

Cardiovascular imaging is, for now, limited. Developing plaque — the fatty deposits that cause heart disease — is tough to detect until there’s about a 50% blockage in the artery. By that relatively late stage, however, it is more complex, problematic and potentially dangerous. For some patients, the type of plaque that might rupture and cause heart disease is embedded in the blood vessel, undetectable by formal imaging currently available.

Which is what makes Bursill’s collaboration with Zheng so exciting. The nanoparticles central to Zheng’s work contain a highly fluorescent lipid, which gives them excellent imaging properties that show great promise in illuminating heart disease. Early detection — potentially using Zhang’s nanoparticle technology — could be a game changer.

‘Also in this nanoparticle — and it’s multifunctional research, like everything at CNBP — there’s a tiny little stretch of protein, a peptide, which means it can track to the really important cell types that cause atherosclerosis,’ says Dr Bursill.

The power is in the potential for that precision tracking to target disease with greater accuracy. Therapy can be loaded into the core of the useful little particle, allowing earlier, more effective treatment.

Based on their work so far, in 2019 Dr Bursill and Dr Zheng secured a National Health and Medical Research Council grant of $630,000 over 4 years to explore the technology’s cardiovascular potential.

But Dr Bursill’s exposure to the challenges of next gen wound care at CBNP makes her aware of the possibilities in that field, too.

‘The little peptide does a lot of other beneficial things. It reduces inflammation; I’m predicting that, because I know the way it works. We know for sure it’s anti-inflammatory, we’ve proven that. I’m predicting that it will also increase new blood vessel formation and could work in the same way as HDL to promote healing. I’m pretty confident and would love to give it a go.’

The CNBP conference cruise Dr Bursill joined 3 years ago wasn’t just about enjoying the ocean breeze: she was benefiting from the culture of collaboration that has been a powerful focus at CNBP from day 1. For Dr Bursill, it has been a safe, friendly environment in which people freely share and explain what they do.

‘You’re not just being incremental in your own focus area,’ she says. ‘You get to join worlds that have never been joined before and you’ve got the chance to discover new things.

‘It’s fantastic. It feels like there is no end to the possibilities.’