Agilent mass spectrometer

Research Innovation Grant winner Dr Kirsten Coupland

Institute's Innovation Centre playing key role in delivering new stroke treatments

20 April 2023

Around 56,000 Australians suffer a stroke every year. Around 450,000 stroke survivors living in Australia suffer from a range of devastating disabilities including paralysis, speech difficulties, memory loss and chronic fatigue.

Whilst there have been incredible advances in the field of stroke in the last decade, scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanisms that cause these side effects.

Dr Kirsten Coupland from the University of Newcastle is utilising the Institute’s Innovation Centre to try and shed light on the inner workings of the brain.

It’s hoped this work, partly funded by a NSW CVRN Research Innovation Grant, could eventually limit the damage caused by a stroke – which could be a game changer for the treatment of stroke the world over.

Dr Kirsten Coupland in the Institute's Innovation Centre

What happens to the brain when you have a stroke?

When you have a stroke, some cells in your brain die, but it is not necessarily just the stroke itself that's leading to cell death. There are other things triggered by a stroke that sets off a chain reaction that leads to even more brain cells dying. Your brain tries to combat these damaging events by activating mechanisms to protect the brain, the brain tries to heal itself.

"I want to really understand these pathways, both the ones that damage the brain and those that are meant to protect the brain, when they are activated, and whether we can use drugs to stop the pathways of damage and amplify the healing pathways"

Are there any treatments for stroke patients that aid with recovery?

The most important thing when someone has a stroke is to get them to hospital as quickly as possible so that doctors can restore normal blood supply in the brain. When it comes to recovery after stroke, there really aren’t many therapies available. Most of what is currently available is prophylactic, which is primarily used to prevent having another stroke. There is also rehabilitation therapy which can restore some lost functionality but there is not much to help fix the long-standing consequences of a stroke.

How are you able to study the human brain?

We are working with cerebrospinal fluid samples because they are powerful biomarkers of central nervous system disease. This fluid is what the brain bathes in so it’s useful for us to understand what’s going wrong in the central nervous system.

However, we can’t take cerebrospinal fluid from stroke patients because it would be far too risky to get a sample from them. So, we’ve teamed up with the University of Adelaide which has a large animal model of stroke. It’s one of only a few in the world.

This has provided us with an amazing biological resource. We can now examine any changes in the composition to the cerebrospinal fluid at multiple time points during a stroke and for 28 days after.

How is the Innovation Centre helping with your research?

I'm using the mass spectrometer available through the Metabolomics Facility at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute. This technology allows us to look at what chemicals make up a substance in a very unbiased way. It reveals each of the little components at a chemical level and allows us to do analysis far, far quicker than traditional lab bench work. It really picks the sample apart.

But it’s not just about access to the mass spectrometers, it’s also about access to the expertise of the team at the Institute. I’ve been working closely with Dr Maz Ali and Esther Krisianto. I have not done this specific sort of analysis before so I would not have been able to run this project by myself.

This grant has been invaluable; without it, I don’t think this project would have happened for a few more years. It allowed us to get the ball rolling.
Dr Kirsten Coupland and Dr Maz Ali at our Metabolomics Facility

What have you discovered so far?

I’ve specifically been looking at how the fats or lipids in the cerebral spinal fluid change as well as trying to see what happens to metabolites, which are chemicals that are released as a part of normal function of a biological system.

The data we have generated so far from this grant is demonstrating that there is very clear evidence that particular pathways have been altered. It’s now about honing in on the top targets to characterise in more detail.

What’s next?

The lab work is done, and the data is now processed. Now we want to check that the targets we have identified do indeed have an impact on stroke outcomes. We can start to do this using brain cells that we grow in a dish. Once we determine the most promising targets, we can start to design new drugs or repurpose existing drugs that could help stroke patients. It could prove very rewarding work for years to come and I hope it might deliver new drugs that could make a huge difference in how people recover from stroke.

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.

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