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An Advanced World: Jeans for Genes

It’s not everyday that you can throw on a pair of your favourite old blues and make a difference, but that’s the beauty of Jeans for Genes; there may not be much to it, but the benefits are paramount. Although the premise of today is simple – wear a pair of jeans and donate some spare change – the work that the fundraiser goes towards at The Children’s Medical Institute (CMRI) is far from it. An independent organisation committed to uncovering the many mysteries of disease, the CMRI works on everything from birth defects to cancer to epilepsy, conducting research that involves investigation into the biology of medical conditions in the hope of discovering new and advanced treatment options. And so today – the CMRI’s major fundraiser – is absolutely crucial in enabling the scientists to continue their work.

One such scientist is PHD candidate Lia Moshkanbaryans, who works out of the cell signaling unit at Sydney University. Although a thorough explanation of her work completely goes over the head of anyone who does not have an aptitude for science, its essence is all about acquiring a more thorough understanding of the way brain diseases work – conditions such as epilepsy or parsons. Lia looks at the “master controllers” of protein networks in the brain – it is when they go out of balance by either stopping or working too well that diseases occur. Therefore, these master controllers are major targets for drug design, and Lia is trying to uncover exactly what areas these drugs need to tackle in order to be effective; thereby allowing future scientists to cater drugs around them.

“This protein class in the neurons is responsible for normal functioning and bad functioning of the cell, and drugs can be designed to control them – which ideally will prevent, treat and alleviate diseases,” she says.
“I study the master controller types and amounts in normal neurons and compare these to different diseased or altered neurons to identify which master controllers can be good drug targets for a particular neurological condition. This means I could identify a master controller which may assist in a trigger for diseases such as epilepsy. This information will provide a novel starting point for drug development to treat the disease.

And so the money raised from Jeans for Genes goes to her division – neurological disease – as well as others within the institute, including the cancer lab and the centre that focuses on genealogical diseases. Lia says that each lab looks at its own special field, and the fundraiser is raising money for research across the board. As she is at the very beginning of her four year project, time will only tell just how much it is able to accomplish for medical science.

“I wanted to put the science I had learned into disease and medicine – plus I am involved in a chemistry technique that I am thoroughly interested in,” she says, when asked to simplify the exact process of her work.
“One of the things that drives me is that this research will eventually go towards drug development –I love the science behind it and what happens on molecular scale.”

It is clear that Lia is immensely passionate about her work and could go on for hours about the exact process, but it is a tad too intricate for anyone not within the field (and who does not have the vocabulary to keep up!). But the fact that she is working on one of the human body’s most mysterious organs provides a small window into just how intriguing this work is.

“We know least about the brain than any other organ – even just simple questions, such as, ‘what is a dream?’ I like that I am contributing to the information pool out there, which will eventually help paint a better picture about how the brain functions – specifically drug design and how diseases work.”

If you’re not wearing jeans today, you can always go home and change, surely. Or just donate double! For those of you in the city, head over to Martin Place and join the festivities.

words: Seema Duggal


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