scientist in lab

Star Scientist of the Month- Josh Dunn

It’s part of the ageing process and can heighten the risk of heart failure and stroke. But this month’s Star Scientist Josh Dunn is determined to finally shed light on why dangerous deposits form in our arteries and valves

25 November 2021

His work requires intense concentration, an eye for detail, and an ability to plan ahead, so it’s no surprise to learn that Josh has a passion for chess.

Josh Dunn in lab

Research assistant Josh Dunn is in a pretty enviable position. At just 25 years old he’s already running his own project under the supervision of Dr Renjing Liu and is planning to publish his first paper next year on vascular calcification.

"It’s pretty rare as a research assistant to lead one’s own project, and I feel very lucky to be in Renjing’s laboratory where each team member has their own project, but we are also involved in one another’s work and help each other."

Josh has worked with Dr Liu ever since he graduated from UNSW where he completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours). He moved with the lab from the Centenary Institute to the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in July 2020.

"In our lab, the Vascular Epigenetics Laboratory, we study how our genes change over time and explore differences in gene expression in physiology and pathology. A lot of people may think that you are born with a set of genes that stay with you that way for life. But, they can change hugely as you age and that can be down to lifestyle factors as well as the way our body works.
"We want to understand how our genes are modified by factors such as age and in various pathologies. This is not only important for understanding biology at the fundamental level, but also with the end goal of generating meaningful knowledge that may one day aid in the development of new therapies."

Shining a light on vascular calcification

Josh’s current work is focused on studying vascular calcification. It’s where mineral deposits build up in the blood vessels and is incredibly common in older people, people with diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

Josh Dunn looking through a microscope

"When your vessels are healthy, they are really good at pumping blood throughout the body but as your arteries calcify they become hardened and can cause a lot of complications including sudden death, especially if you are suffering from another disease such as diabetes and chronic kidney disease."

During calcification, the cells in the arteries, which are mostly smooth muscle cells turn into bone-like cells that are stiff and affect the way that blood can be pumped around the body. Josh is focusing on identifying new genes that underpin the change of a normal smooth muscle cells into the bone-like state.

"At the moment we are focused on understanding how epigenetics influence smooth muscle cell calcification.
"If we do prove that this is important in the regulation of a healthy blood vessel then we can potentially move onto finding a drug that can effectively target it and then increase its activity or restore its functionality. That’s pretty exciting and has the potential to help so many people."

It’s work that will keep Josh busy for years and especially during his upcoming switch to a PhD which he plans to start in the very near future.

Dr Liu says she is thrilled this incredible young researcher is pursuing his PhD. "Within six months of joining my lab and taking on a completely new project Josh had generated the key preliminary data that was essential for securing a NHMRC Ideas Grant last year. His new data then helped the lab obtain a NSW Cardiovascular Health Grant. He is a capable and passionate researcher who will make a positive impact with his work," says Dr Liu.

Inheriting his father’s passion for science

Josh Dunn and his family

Josh says: "I’ve always loved studying and was into science from a young age. I think I got that from my dad, who I would have to say is a bit of a nerd. He’s an engineer and was into computers and all sorts of technical things which he passed onto me. As a kid, I was really interested in space and at school, I did biology and chemistry which led me onto my Bachelor of Science at university."

Chess is another passion that has been with Josh since he was a kid and one that his dad also played a key role in. "He got me a chess book for Christmas and when the lockdown started I got into it as you couldn’t really go outside. It also helped that the Queen’s Gambit (Netflix series) was also on this year so chess became pretty cool."

Outside of work and chess, Josh is like any other 25 year old. He swims whenever he can, and catches up with friends. But for now, the focus is on getting his first paper published, and gearing up for the start of his PhD.

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