Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute laboratory

Star Scientist - Dr Nicole Bryce

“My curiosity is always driving me to want to know why the genes and proteins that I work on do what they do, how they cause disease and how can we harness the power of these experiments to prevent or treat the disease.”

21 February 2023

As Aussie musician Paul Kelly sings, from little things big things grow. Working at a molecular level, it’s the little things in science that fascinate Research Scientist Dr Nicole Bryce and lead to those big ‘ah-ha!’ moments.

Dr Nicole Bryce with Kovacic laboratory colleagues at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Sydney

Nicole’s drive to understand the ‘why’ behind the minute, yet fundamental, processes within the body are being put to good use in a groundbreaking project that is changing our understanding of cardiovascular disease.

Your current research is focused on a gene called PHACTR1, what is this gene and what does it do in the body?

The PHACTR1 gene has been shown to be one of the most important genes in cardiovascular disease. It's quite unique because if you have too much of the gene, you can get a disease called fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD). FMD affects the elasticity of the arteries and can cause them to tear - which many people won’t survive. On the other hand, if you have too little of the gene you have a greatly increased risk of atherosclerosis, which is blocking of the arteries and raises the risk of having a heart attack. So essentially you want to have the right amount - too much or too little is a bad thing. This important balance is controlled by one change in your genetic code.

The thing that I'm personally interested in is what the PHACTR1 gene does in cardiovascular disease. We know a little bit about it, but why it causes all these problems in the body is unknown. This gene surprises us every time - it's a very complex gene.

I personally would like to understand what PHACTR1 does, because if we can work out how to control and regulate it, we could start building potential treatment options for FMD and atherosclerosis.

Dr Nicole Bryce with Dr Christine Lucas in the laboratory

You describe yourself as a basic scientist, what do you mean by that?

At the heart I’m a basic scientist because I like working on understanding the fundamental mechanisms and actions of genes and proteins. The thinking and the techniques behind studying genes and proteins are foundational to all research – whether that’s cardiovascular disease or cancer research.

What do you find most rewarding about the research you're doing?

I’ve worked on a lot of different genes and proteins throughout my career, and in many different research contexts and it has all been rewarding to me. I’ve worked on projects that were basic cell biology, drug diffusion, building models for mathematicians to describe cancer growth and metastasis, drug delivery using nanoparticles and cancer targeted peptides, as well as screening for new anti-cancer agents and now vascular cell biology. My curiosity is always driving me to want to know why the genes and proteins that I work on do what they do, how they cause disease and how can we harness the power of these experiments to prevent or treat the disease.

In terms of the FMD work, it’s rewarding because currently you can’t just go to the doctor and say please check my FMD risk - most people have never heard of FMD before it happens to them. It's not like other diseases where you can ask your GP for a heart health check or skin cancer check, or a colonoscopy, or a mammogram. Which is scary because with FMD it’s so sudden and out of the blue, no one expects it to happen. Our understanding of FMD is limited and yet it has such devastating impacts. We also don’t know why it primarily affects women. I'm proud to work on the PHACTR1 FMD research project because if we can work out how and why it is happening, then we might be able to develop a test to check for FMD risk or develop therapeutics that lessen the risk of recurrence.

Having previously worked in a lab which started with a basic science discovery that they then developed all the way through to a potential new drug, I have seen this process happen (and how much work it was for so many people and how long it took!). I know that it will be possible to do something similar with our PHACTR1 project and apply our basic science knowledge to developing FMD therapeutics.

What’s it like working in the lab with the Institute’s Executive Director Professor Jason Kovacic?

What's nice about working with Jason is that we have very different backgrounds in research. He is both a scientist and a medical doctor, so he comes from both the human and molecular perspective. He knows what it’s like to treat people that have these diseases. He also has a focus on gene expression networks and discovering genes that cause cardiovascular diseases from big patient datasets. Whereas I focus more on the molecular and cell biology aspects of disease, we have complimentary research interests and that is working well for us.

I think that’s what we've built with this lab - a group where everybody has a different specialty, yet we work very well together as a team. We cover such a vast array of thinking styles and project styles and technical capabilities. That's what I like about working in this lab, everyone's knowledge is complimentary but different.

Dr Nicole Bryce with Dr Christine Lucas, Dr Kathryn Wolhuter and Professor Jason Kovacic

As someone with a wealth of experience and knowledge to share, do you find it rewarding working with the next generation of scientists?

I enjoy the teaching part of what I do. I've had students for many years, and some have been incredibly successful. My most recent PhD student is now a Schmidt Science Fellow, which is a really big deal. She's done very well for herself and I'm very proud that I could help her along the way.

Having students involved in our work is great because everyone brings a unique perspective to the lab. Although it does feel a bit weird that I’ve been doing some of the things that I'm teaching them longer than they've been alive…

Having worked on various research projects throughout your career, do you keep an ear out for where those projects are at now?

You've always got the network of science friends to keep you informed and if you keep reading the papers you see what's going on. Conferences are another great way to hear what stage the research is at. You might not see the change week to week, year to year, but you go to these conferences five or 10 years later and you get to see these massive changes.

It’s exciting to think about where the PHACTR1 research might be in five or 10 years’ time.

Exactly. The day-to-day work all builds up and advances the story. Then you sit back and think about your week, or month, or year of work and you can see how it all fits together, how it all moves things forward. That's when it becomes very rewarding.

Research can be mentally and physically draining, what do you do outside of the lab to switch off?

Nicole Bryce travelling in Antarctica

Before COVID I used to travel quite a bit. I only have Africa left to travel to and then I’ve visited all the continents. My first big solo trip was to South America – I planned that trip as a way to relax before starting my PhD. I knew I was going to be working hard for three years, so I planned a trip at the beginning and then a trip to Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia at the end to motivate me. I enjoy seeing the world and what’s out there. I lived in the US for 4.5 years and enjoyed travelling to different cities and states. In 2019, I took long service leave and I went to Antarctica, South America, and South Georgia for 6 weeks to hike, visit the penguins and live up to my role as the cool aunt who travels a lot. Then I went to Iceland later that year to photograph the Northern lights.

I would do Antarctica again. The vast emptiness of it, except for all the penguins and seals, was awesome. I like seeing natural, beautiful places in the world. I also enjoy photographing animals, so I’d like to go to Christmas Island to see the crab migration, to Africa to see giraffes and to Borneo to see orangutans.

I haven't done much travelling of late. While recovering from a foot injury, I needed some sedentary hobbies. What I’ve been doing is crafting, sewing and making soap and jewelry, as well as watching a lot of cricket. I tend to get a couple of new hobbies each year! I’m always doing something crafty. Lately I've been making baby outfits for my cousins who have recently had children. It’s a hobby, but I do sell the excess through my Etsy store, and I had a Christmas market stall last year.

Where does that creative side come from?

I was that weird person at high school who had an unexpected mix of electives, like textiles and Latin. But it makes sense to me because I find science to be creative too. You design experiments, and yes it might be more science designing, but it's still creative. I guess it all comes back to the fact I want to know why and I’m always curious about how to make something work. Just like in crafts we are making something in the lab – eventually we will make a therapy.

Incredible photo taken by Nicole Bryce of penguins in Antarctica
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