Burnet researchers use their lab expertise to improve public health in PNG

Tracy Parish

21 May, 2012

Claire (left) and Jo outside PNGIMR

Starting their journey with Burnet in 2003 as honours students, Dr Claire Ryan and Ms Jo Wapling are working on full-time secondment with the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR), based in the highlands town of Goroka.

You can find out more about their fascinating work in the latest edition of our newsletter IMPACT.

Dr Ryan is currently involved in the first study of human papillomavirus prevalence among the general population in Papua New Guinea, in collaboration with the Kirby Institute and the HIV and STI laboratory at PNGMIR.

This virus is the pre-curser to cervical cancer, which is a leading cause of death among PNG women.

“This information will be used to improve the screening and treatment for pre-cancerous lesions, and also to provide information that the National Department of Health require for the introduction of vaccination,” Dr Ryan explained.

Another priority is to improve the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis, and they are currently working with the Kirby Institute (University of NSW) and Burnet’s Associate Professor David Anderson to identify the best rapid diagnostic tool for use in PNG’s unique environment.

The development of the HIV and STI laboratory has enabled testing for a variety of sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomoniasis.

These techniques are used in STI epidemiology studies, including the largest survey among antenatal clinic attendees in PNG. The laboratory also conducts serological based tests for syphilis, herpes simplex virus type 2 and HIV, and is working with Burnet’s Centre for Virology to conduct the first investigation into the prevalence and development of HIV drug resistance in PNG.

Working in a development setting such as PNG poses many challenges when trying to conduct quality research, but Dr Ryan believes the rewards definitely outweigh the challenges.

“Our lab team and the broader Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit at IMR are amazing. Everyone is genuinely interested and dedicated to conducting research to improve public health problems in PNG,” Dr Ryan said.

Fellow Burnet researcher, Jo Wapling works at IMR to assist in the implementation and development of molecular techniques to test for pathogens, working closely with Dr Ryan’s HIV and STI laboratory on several projects.

Her other major projects include providing technical support to IMR’s Malaria Laboratory (led by Dr Barnadas from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute) and establishing molecular techniques to investigate the role of two common causes of pneumonia in child hospitalisation, with Dr Andrew Greenhill’s Bacteriology Laboratory in collaboration with the University of Western Australia.

“The majority of these tests utilise a technique known as real-time PCR to detect and quantify a particular pathogen’s genomic material,” Ms Wapling said.

“Currently IMR is the only facility in PNG that has the equipment, staff and know-how to use these molecular biology techniques.”

The PNGIMR is the oldest national research institute in PNG, conducting research and public health intervention programs to target respiratory diseases, malaria, malnutrition, enteric diseases, sexual health and women’s health.

Find out more about our work in Papua New Guinea too!

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor James Beeson

Deputy Director (People); Head of Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory; Adjunct Professor Monash University




[email protected]

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