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5 Questions on Biotechnology: Prof. Peter Smooker

BrainGain magazine asked Dr. Peter Smooker, Head of the Biotechnology Lab at RMIT, about Biotechnology. He shared his insights on subject, as well as its practical applications. Edited excerpts below.
BY Skendha Singh |   13-10-2015
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Biotechnology is one of the more exciting options available to young students today. BrainGain magazine spoke to Prof. Peter Smooker, from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), who heads the Biotechnology Lab at the university. He spoke to us about issues which are of immediate concern and also widely known, such as allergies, drug resistance, vaccinations, etc.

Read more below.

  1. What is the simplest definition of biotechnology?

    The name says it all- Bio Technology! We use basic biological principles and apply them to practical problems, to make things that are useful for humans. This includes vaccines, therapeutic proteins (for example insulin), drugs to treat disease, and many other things.
  2. Almost everyone has allergies but hardly anyone understands them! What are allergies? Why do we get them?

    Allergies occur when our immune system gets things wrong, and reacts strongly to something that really isn’t a threat to us. Why it occurs in some people but not others is complex, and partly due to genetics, but the increase in allergic people in societies where children are less exposed to common pathogens argues that the immune system needs to be trained to avoid allergic responses.
  3. Drug resistance is an increasingly widespread phenomenon. Does biotechnology have an antidote?

    Partly. The answer lies in a two - fold approach. The first is to develop a vaccine against the pathogen, so that people don’t become infected and require drug treatment. A good example is malaria, which can be highly drug-resistant. Recently, the first vaccine against malaria has been manufactured. Secondly, we need to search for new antibiotics. You may not know it, but many bacteria make their own antibiotics, and scientists are testing these on drug-resistant bacteria.
  4. Vaccination is a controversial subject today, with groups declaiming against its side effects. Where do you stand?

    I am very much pro-vaccination. There is a lot of misleading publicity about the dangers of vaccines, with no evidence to support it. Furthermore, in some regions diseases such as measles and whooping cough have returned, due to the lack of vaccination in these communities.  Everyone needs to ne vaccinated so we get what s called “herd immunity”. It is imperative that we don’t go back to the pre-vaccination days where millions of children died annually of currently preventable diseases.
  5. What fascinates you most about your line of work?

    The act of discovery. This is a wonderful process.

    You might have heard that scientific discoveries are met with a cry of “Eureka!” but, more usually, it is looking at results and thinking “That’s very strange”.

    Then you find out why it is strange, and you have made a new discovery!



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