Monique Windley and Clifford TeBay in the Institute's Innovation Centre

Star Scientist – Clifford TeBay

It was the Innovation Centre’s robots that first caught the eye of PhD student Clifford TeBay

17 June 2024

Now a member of the Institute’s Computational Cardiology lab, Clifford is using this technology to better understand how we can minimise the negative side effects caused by drugs – some of which can affect the heart.

What’s the focus of your research in the Institute’s Computational Cardiology lab?

I'm looking at the interaction between drugs and disease that leads to worse arrhythmia outcomes, where arrhythmia is the inappropriate beating of the heart. There’s a range of medications people are taking in their day-to-day life and there's two sides to every medication - there's the effects that it's giving to treat whatever condition the person has, and then there's the side effects that we want to avoid.

We’re looking at the latter and we're trying to better understand how we can minimise those negative effects, in particular the interference with the heart rhythm or the electrical activity of the heart. We want to improve drug screening so that we can see if anything is being missed by current testing, or if current testing is a bit too stringent and some of the drugs that we could be taking are not reaching us.

You began with the Institute at the start of the pandemic, how did that inform your research?

I started at the Institute as a Research Assistant (RA) in early 2020 right at the beginning of the pandemic when we didn't know what treatments were best for COVID-19. Some people were suggesting medications like chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, and azithromycin. The question most people were asking was whether these drugs would be effective in treating COVID-19, but we were focused on the question of whether they were safe to take.

Clifford TeBay

These medications are prescribed to patients for things like arthritis and malaria so many people assumed that you could just move them over to COVID-19 patients. But what we were finding through the tests I was doing was that the effects of COVID-19, which can include disturbances to salt levels, pH levels and fevers, were making some of these drugs a bit more problematic. We were able to show that there are certain factors of the COVID-19 disease that makes these drugs riskier than if the person hadn't had COVID-19.

You moved from your role as a Research Assistant to a PhD; what is the focus of your PhD?

The first aim of my PhD is looking at a panel of drugs that have known risk, but focusing on the unknown risk, which is mainly disease factors. So it’s the same type of testing for the same type of disease symptoms as I did with COVID-19, but for a much broader range of drugs with known risk. A lot of testing doesn't consider things like what happens if you have an infection or if you have other disease symptoms when you take your medications. I'm trying to improve testing so that we’re looking at both health and disease in relation to medications.

My next aim is looking at methadone formulations. Methadone is known as a chiral molecule, that is, its structure is made up of both a left and a right-handed form of the drug. It’s been shown that the left-handed form causes arrhythmia, which is what I'm concerned with, while the right-handed form has the normal opioid effect. In some countries around the world, they've recognised this risk and separated methadone to only contain the right-handed form, but in Australia, the UK, and the US they have not, so I'm working to establish that groundwork here in Australia.

My final and current project is quite different. I'm looking at stem cell models of diabetes specifically because it's known that diabetic patients commonly have this risk of drug-induced arrhythmia or other types of arrhythmia. I'm trying to see what are the factors underlying diabetes specifically affecting the heart that is leading to this kind of worse arrhythmia outcome.

You’re now in your third year of your PhD, how have you found the experience?

I had a bit of an idea of what I was getting myself into with a PhD, but part of the reason why I wanted to be a Research Assistant (RA) beforehand was to scope out how I would go in a new field for me, as I had previously worked in neuroscience, and also scope out the lab to make sure I was picking the right area of research. I was really pleased with the RA work I did here, and I was pleased with the team I got to work with, so that's why I decided to do my PhD here.

I’ve got three projects and I’ve got three or four years to juggle each project, but I think I'm doing well to maintain it - everyone seems to tell me that I'm right on track.

What’s it like to work at the Institute and with Dr Adam Hill?

I was working previously in neuroscience research in Newcastle and I was really pleased with the work I could do there. But moving into the city and what we have here at the Institute and how close we are to other institutes, it's just a different experience. When I interviewed here, Adam took me upstairs to the Innovation Centre and showed me all the different robots. I decided then that I didn’t want to leave the Institute without learning just a bit about each robot. I think Adam saw the light go on in my eyes and he knew exactly what I was thinking.

Adam has been a great supervisor - he wants me to gain as many skills as I can and even, when I changed my research he was just as supportive. During the second wave of the lockdown, I was working from home doing more of the theory side of work, and that's when I came up with my diabetes research question. It’s not always typical that a PhD student puts forward their own research question, but Adam has been supportive - not only by walking me through the process but also putting me in contact with people that I might need to know. They say a good supervisor is one that opens doors for you and Adam has always been great with that.

Has the Innovation Centre and the robots that caught your eye on your first visit to the Institute lived up to your expectations?

They definitely have – the technology is pretty amazing. During my honours, I was doing manual patch clamp where if you could get 10 cells in a day, you've had a good day. Now I'm working on a machine that does 384 cells in an hour. It just changes the speed of research entirely. I can't imagine doing the work I do manually because I'm looking at multiple drug screens and multiple different conditions that changes their response, so you need a big amount of power going into that.

Clifford TeBay using a Microlab STAR Robot (Hamilton) in our Innovation Centre

You started in neuroscience research before moving into heart research, what inspired that change?

I was always interested in science at high school and specifically I wanted to get into neuroscience. While working in neuroscience I developed a skillset in what's known as electrophysiology, which is looking at the behaviour of the electrical-producing cells in the body. It just so happens that the other organ in the body that is electrically active is the heart - so you can use quite a lot of the same skills in cardiac research. As much as I do love neuroscience, the heart is just as interesting to me and I'm just as passionate about the work I'm doing here as what I was doing in neuro.

I’ve always been a big believer in setting your foundation wide when you start because you just don’t know what's going to change or what's going to come up. There's the skills you have and then there's the skills that you require to answer the question. Especially while I'm still young and a PhD student, I want to set my foundation wide to begin with and hopefully that can take me wherever I need.

What interests do you have outside of the lab?

It's going to make me sound very nerdy [laughs] but I read comics. I read other books as well, but it's mainly comics.

Clifford looking at a comic book at Kings Comics in Sydney

Is that something you got into when you were a kid?

Not really - it was more so inspired by the comic movies that were coming out when I was in uni which got me thinking about reading the original comics. Most of the big comics are American, but there are Australian comics and Australian work being done – for example comics with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling.

Particularly when it comes to the Australian comic book scene, I like to go to local conventions where the artists are there selling their comics at their own table. You get to speak to them and ask them about their process and how they came up with their ideas. I also like being able to tell the people creating these comics that you like their work - it just feels more personal than buying a ticket to see the movie that everyone's watching.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years