Tall Poppy Awards for two of UniSA’s rising stars

Using visual illusions to treat chronic pain: a patient’s finger being ‘stretched'. COMMUNITY
Using visual illusions to treat chronic pain: a patient’s finger being ‘stretched'.

Dr Tasha StantonJust four years into her postdoctoral career, UniSA researcher Dr Tasha Stanton (pictured right) has already made a ground-breaking discovery – that changing how a painful body part looks to an osteoarthritis sufferer using visual illusions can significantly reduce the pain they feel.

But it is Dr Stanton’s ability to undertake high quality scientific research and then communicate the findings to the wider community that has seen her win a Tall Poppy Award in the 2015 South Australian Young Tall Poppy Science Campaign.

The Campaign, which is designed to encourage public engagement in science, also recognised Centre for Cancer Biology (an alliance between UniSA and SA Pathology) researcher and UniSA Adjunct Research Fellow, Dr Simon Conn with a Tall Poppy Award.

Dr Stanton said she was excited to be recognised for making science communication a priority. She undertakes a number of community engagement activities, including acting as section editor on the BodyinMind website and presenting public lectures both in Australia and overseas.

She is also one of the founding members of the website The ICECream, which provides information and support to students considering a career in science.

“I’m really passionate about increasing public knowledge about pain and its treatment,” she said.

“It’s a condition that affects so many people around the world and I want to share with the wider community the exciting discoveries we’re making in the lab.”

Dr Stanton, a Research Fellow at UniSA’s Body in Mind Research Group, said her research involved using special equipment to change how a person’s body looks to them.

“The brain holds a dynamic representation of the body, integrating information from numerous senses, which informs how your body feels to you,” she said.

“For example, in chronic pain, altered perceptions of the body occur – parts of the body can feel bigger or smaller than they actually are. Brain-based treatment that targets body perception reduces pain, normalising both perceptions and brain changes.

“My area of focus has been osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis sufferers have altered perceptions of their painful joint, which suggests brain changes. To target the brain and treat the condition, I use multisensory illusions which alter body perception.

“People watch their knee ‘grow’ by watching altered real-time video and I combine this with congruent touch that confirms the ‘growth’, such as pulling on the leg.

“This has been shown to reduce pain by approximately 40 per cent in people with knee osteoarthritis. This new treatment option could potentially delay or avoid total joint replacements.”

Dr Simon ConnDr Conn (pictured right) is working towards finding new treatments for one of the biggest health problems of our time – cancer.

His area of focus is cancer metastasis, the name given to the spread of cancer through formation of secondary tumours. Cancer metastasis is responsible for over 90 per cent of cancer-related deaths.

“Understanding the processes involved with cancer metastasis can guide treatment,” Dr Conn said.

“I discovered novel pieces of genetic information, called circular RNAs, which are present at much higher levels in human metastatic cells, suggesting they have very important roles in this process.

“For the first time, I identified a protein which stimulates the production of these molecules. This protein and the circular RNAs themselves have the potential to revolutionise the clinical management of numerous cancers.”

Dr Conn said it was an honour to be singled out as a young leader in science, both in terms of research output and communication.

“As a Florey Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Cancer Biology it is particularly special, given the Tall Poppy Awards were created in 1998 to honour the centenary of the birth of the great South Australian scientist Lord Howard Florey who shared a Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin,” he said.

“Beyond working in the laboratory, I really enjoy the opportunity to liaise with and inform the public of sometimes highly complex scientific concepts – whether this be with primary school students through the ‘Scientists in Schools’ program, or with high school students regarding their SACE Research Projects, or at various cancer fundraising events where we can engage with the general public.”

For more information on the Tall Poppy Campaign, go to the Australian Institute of Policy and Science website.