2020 Physics Grand Challenges winners announced

1 December 2020
Each project has been awarded $250k over two years by the Physics Foundation
The successful submissions include a project to use nano machines for targeted drug delivery and a novel way to provide early cancer detection in humans.

The Physics Foundation have awarded $250,000 funding to two innovative projects to undertake ambitious interdisciplinary research.

Initiated by the Head of School, Professor Celine Boehm, the Grand Challenges intends to showcase opportunities for physics to drive research and breakthroughs that could transform the world.

"Once again, the successful projects demonstrate the collaborative potential of looking outside our own discipline to solve complex problems. These projects provide exciting opportunities for research teams to work together and for research students to be part of innovative new undertakings” Professor Boehm said.

The event requires researchers to present a five-minute pitch to an audience of staff, students and a panel of judges, comprised of Physics Foundation members and distinguished industry colleagues.

The successful projects are:

Graphic diagram of neural networks in a brain

Nanoscale brain navigation for targeted drug delivery 

Brain disorders, including mental illness, dementia and brain tumours cost Australia over $74 billion dollars a year.

Yet 92% of all new central nervous system drugs fail at clinical trials because they tend to flood the brain and cause off-target toxicity, rather than target the specific area where they are required.

This Physics Grand Challenge project seeks to design nanoscale robots which could deliver drugs to the distinct regions of the brain where they are needed, transforming treatments and patient outcomes.

Using expertise in DNA nanoscience, neuroinformatics, and artificial intelligence, the cross-disciplinary team aims to develop algorithms that will allow these machines to detect region-specific molecules in the brain before delivering their drug payload.

School of Physics:

  • Ben Fulcher
  • Shelley Wickham
  • Marcela Bilek
  • Mike Wheatland
  • Celine Boehm
  • Zdenka Kuncic
  • David McKenzie
  • Svetlana Postnova
  • Pulin Gong
  • Tristram Alexander
  • Maryanne Large
  • Aaron Gilmour
  • Benham Akhavan
  • Eloisa Perez-Bennetts

University of Sydney

  • Mac Shine (Brain and Mind Centre)
  • Joe Lizier (Engineering)
  • Stuart Fraser (Physiology)
  • Jonathan Berengut (Chemistry)
Graphic diagram of positron annihilation lifetime spectroscopy

Positronium: the key for cancer annihilation

The aim of this project is to develop a novel anti-matter marker, positronium (i.e. a hydrogen like positron–electron complex), with quantum sensitivity and specificity for early cancer diagnosis, a medical technology not previously recognised. 

The project aims to experimentally and theoretically derive the positronium annihilation parameters for a range of cancer cells (such as breast, prostate, colorectal, brain) and for the first time demonstrate a proof of principle for the use of positronium as a universal cancer marker and positron annihilation lifetime spectroscopy as a novel early detection test. 

Additionally, the project will open new avenues of research including a new positron emission tomography (PET) modality, “positronium tomography” for obtaining much more accurate diagnostic imaging. 

This quantum-medicine-platform can potentially offer a novel marker for clinically meaningful early detection of cancer with high diagnostic accuracy and represents a paradigm shift for cancer medicine in the 21st century. 

The University of Sydney: 

  • Dr Yaser Hadi Gholami
  • A/Prof Bruce Yabsley 
  • Prof Annette Haworth
  • Dr Rob Finnegan 
  • Prof Kevin Varvell 
  • A/Prof Stefano Palomba 
  • Prof Dale Bailey
  • Prof Steven Meikle
  • Dr Georgios Angelis
  • Prof Alexander Engel
  • Prof Mark Molloy 

International collaborators from Harvard Medical School- Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH):

  • Prof Georges El Fakheri’s team 
  • A/Prof Jan Schuemann
  • Dr Aimee McNamara  
  • A/Prof Clemens Grassberger 

2019 winners

Last year’s winners spoke highly of the nature of the initiative and the boost it provided to their research.

“A five minute pitch certainly focuses the mind,” said Dr Joy Murray, the lead on one of last year’s winning entries, Using big data to stamp out slavery in the supply chain. “Once you’ve nailed it you have a very clear idea of what you want to do and why you – and everyone else should be – passionate about it.”

Professor Mike Wheatland is part of 2019’s other winning pitch, Mission to Alpha Centauri. “The pitch event gave us the opportunity to showcase just how far-reaching and incredible our Grand Challenge project is. What could be more astonishing than achieving interstellar travel?”

Physics Foundation making projects possible

The generous funding by the Physics Foundation has meant that these projects are given the freedom to truly pursue solutions to these significant problems.

“Without the Physics Foundation funding there would have been no project,” Professor Martijn de Sterke, also of the Alpha Centauri group, said. “It has allowed us to initiate a project in an exciting area in which the School was previously not active and has lead to new collaborations, both within the School and with researchers elsewhere.”

Dr Murray agrees. “We had gone as far as we could without funding. We’d researched the background and met with the experts inside and outside the University.

"We needed funds to employ a data visualisation expert and someone to collect data on the ground for us – things that couldn’t be done without funds no matter how hard everyone had worked to get that far and how much everyone wanted to help.”

Learn more about the Physics Foundation.

Without the Physics Foundation funding there would have been no project.
Professor Martijn de Sterke