Van Dooren Lab at ANU offers NYSF a hands-on visit

The NYSF 2017 Food, Agriculture and Animal & Plant Biology group ‘Hill’ visited the Van Dooren Lab this afternoon, located in ANU’s Research School of Biology. Hosted by Dr Giel Van Dooren and his team of postgraduate students, the Hill group spent anafternoon learning about parasitology.

Parasitology is the study of parasites, organisms that feed off a ‘host’ organisms, usually with negative effects to this host. The group was specifically looking at protozoan parasites, single-celled organisms that are found in the bodies of hosts, and often with the host’s own cells. The four parasites the participants were focusing on in the Van Dooren Lab are known to be responsible for malaria, chagas disease and toxoplasmosis.

The participants had to determine what parasite was infecting a ‘patient’, with one assigned to each group of four. The participants had to examine blood and tissue samples of a patient, through microscopy, as well as conduct a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) experiment. Each patient also had a scenario attached, to help narrow down what parasite it could be, such as ‘she has recently travelled to the rainforests of Borneo, and upon her return has begun to have headaches, fevers, and chills’.

Dr Van Dooren teaching students how to use the mechanical pipette

Firstly, the group used the PCR technique on DNA from the patients. PCR is a process that replicates DNA, which is then pipetted into an agarose gel solution plate and exposed to an electric field. The field causes the DNA molecule to migrate through the gel, with smaller molecules moving faster than larger ones. This is photographed and shows as ‘bands’ of DNA, with infected patients, containing parasitic DNA as well, showing extra ‘bands’. The actual PCR process can take about an hour after being set up, but the participants were excited to try this new technique, which also meant using tools they had never used before.

Whilst the PCR was running, the group used microscopy to examine the blood and tissue samples. As most protozoan parasites enter their host’s cells, they can often be seen easily under the microscope, and can even give an estimate of how long the patient has been infected. Once the PCR results were found, the group then sat with their demonstrators and discussed the literature behind the parasites, including prevention, treatment, and the struggle for treatment as parasites become resistant to drugs. Groups then presented their findings, combining results from microscopy, PCR, and based on the scenario given, to the rest of participants, including the prognosis and treatment of their patients.

Participants presenting their findings

To Find out more about Dr Van Dooren and his work, check out the university website:

Meg Stegeman, Communications Intern NYSF 2017 Session C and NYSF Alumna 2014

What happens on an NYSF lab visit at ANU’s Research School of Biology?

In January 2015, NYSF students donned their lab coats, focused their microscopes, and honed their pipetting skills in an attempt to diagnose what ailed recently returned tourist, Meng …

Meng is an intrepid traveller with a love of languages who has recently returned from backpacking through South East Asia. She spent much of her time in a local village near the Thai-Cambodian border, honing her mastery of the Northern Khmer dialect. Since her return to Australia, Meng has experienced increasingly severe cycles of headaches, fevers and chills.

The NYSF students’ brief was to use modern approaches to diagnose their patients, and, through consultation of the medical literature, suggest an appropriate treatment.

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NYSF 2015 students with Dr Giel van Dooren, ANU’s Research School of Biology                 (images NYSF/Geoff Burchfield)


Using DNA samples from their patients, students performed diagnostic polymerase chain reactions to determine the identity of the parasite. They also examined microscope slides with blood smears and tissue samples to look for the presence of parasites in their patients. When they had established the likely cause of their patient’s illness, the students examined the medical literature to determine an appropriate course of treatment.

In addition to their crucial role in diagnosing their patients/demonstrators, the NYSF students got to chat with research scientists at various stages of their career, learning what it’s like to investigate the fascinating world of parasite biology. They also toured a modern research lab to learn about the sort of equipment that scientists use to investigate parasites.

So how did the students go in diagnosing Meng? They soon learned that she was infected with Plasmodium falciparum, the most devastating species of malaria-causing parasites. Without rapid treatment, Meng’s future looked grim. After consulting the medical literature, students realised that the region of Cambodia where Meng acquired her infection is rife with parasites that are resistant to many of the common medications used to treat malaria. Meng was prescribed with a course of artemisinin combination therapy, one of the very few antimalarial treatments still effective. Of course, prevention is better than cure. Upon examining Meng’s case history, students realised that she had not been sleeping in bed nets, nor had she take prophylactic anti-malarial medication, both of which would likely have avoided the predicament she found herself in. After a stern talking to, the NYSF students left Meng to her recovery and continued on their paths of scientific discovery in the nation’s capital.

The ‘Parasite Detectives’ pracs were conducted by Meng Zhang, Edwin Tjhin, Esther Rajendran and Giel van Dooren (Research School of Biology, ANU), with wonderful assistance from Peta Moisis and her team at the ANU Biology Teaching and Learning Centre. Melanie Rug and Kathryn Parker also contributed to the design of the prac.