Meet The Researcher


Professor Jonathon Baell

Monash University

Let’s get started! Tell us an interesting fact about yourself...
I was born in a town called Mbeya, in Tanzania (then called Tanganika), East Africa. If I lost my birth certificate I don’t know if I would ever be able to get another. I was born to Caucasian parents of English heritage, but being born in Africa has occasionally caused amusing confusion over the years, in certain situations. Growing up in Tasmania can add a further level of confusion when “Tanzania” and “Tasmania” are mistaken for each other. I remember my father (a Government doctor in Tanzania) telling me once that MS rates in Tanzania were relatively low, and that this is the case for all countries near the Equator, for reasons at the time unknown.
What inspired you to get involved in MS research?
Well interestingly that comment just made about rates of MS in equatorial countries led to MS being imprinted in my mind from an early age. And then over the years several friends and family acquaintances suffered from MS, which given its time-course, makes a strong impression. So when one’s skill is in design and development of small molecules (diagnostics, therapeutics), when one appreciates how dire and complicated MS is and how long it has remained without a cure despite the best efforts of passionate medical researchers, and when a world-leading MS clinician such as Professor Trevor Kilpatrick from Howard Florey Neuroscience approaches one to collaborate for advances in the field, one acts positively!
What do you think has been the most exciting development in MS research?
I am most excited about the approaches currently in development and heading towards clinical trials or in clinical trials. I really hope from these efforts emerges one or more breakthrough treatments.
Tell us about your current research project...
Very much related to the answer just given about new clinical trials, we are very excited by our own project to develop better non-invasive diagnostics that could really help improve the success of clinical development, which in MS has a poor track record. We are developing PET radiotracers that will allow us to distinguish, for the first time, between microglia (the brain’s immune cells) that are either destructive or reparative. Currently there is no way to do this!
Why is your research important and how will it influence the understanding and treatment of MS?
Our focus in on progressive MS, which is in dire need of a cure. Clinical trials are difficult and imprecise. By being able to distinguish between different types of microglia during clinical trials with a new proposed treatment, we will be able to stratify patients appropriately, be able to discern how a proposed new treatment is affecting the disease, when and with what to apply treatments, and so on.
What do you enjoy most about working in the lab and what are some of the challenges you face?
Well, the enjoyment of medicinal chemistry – the science that discovers new treatments – is that you are always entering new territory, making and testing compounds that have never been made before by anyone…in the whole Galaxy! Applying chemistry expertise to the greater good makes it seem worthwhile. The challenges are two-fold: drug discovery and development is very tricky, requiring knowledge in a raft of areas beyond just chemistry. And chemistry is very labour-intensive, which makes funding it sufficiently a continual challenge. That is why we are so appreciative about this MS Research Australia grant.
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Professor Jonathon Baell