“As a child, I was always asking questions like, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’,” explains Lecturer and Course Director for the Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering Joshua Chou. “I think as humans, we’re naturally curious about the world we live in.
“Growing up,” he adds, “I’ve experienced first-hand, and through others’ experiences, how diseases like cancer, osteoporosis and bone fractures impact patients and families. And I’ve always wanted to break the paradigm in how we approach diagnostics and treatment.
“That’s why I’ve developed, and continue to develop, my training so that my expertise lies at the interface; between disciplines. Sometimes there’s a solution waiting for a problem, and sometimes a problem waiting for a solution. And those are best matched at the interface – that space where two or more disciplines come together.”
For Joshua, the journey began at UTS in 2001, when he came to study a Bachelor of Science majoring in nanotechnology. He then stayed to complete his honours and PhD and was awarded a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in 2011. Once he completed the fellowship, he headed to the US after being named the 37th Dean Scholar at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
There, he worked with a multidisciplinary team of doctors, biomedical engineers and cell biologists, and with NASA, to test how our bones are affected by the absence of gravity.
Together, the researchers identified and developed a sclerostin antibody, which was shown in mice trials to increase bone formation, improve bone structure and increase bone strength in space. Sclerostin, which has recently finished human clinical trials, is now FDA approved for use in the treatment of osteoporotic patients worldwide.
Joshua says, “Working in a multidisciplinary team showed me the power of recognising each individual’s expertise and coming together to achieve the impossible.”
Back at UTS, Joshua’s using the principles he learned at Harvard to continue his research into potential treatments for osteoporosis.
As a biomedical engineer in the School of Life Sciences, he’s one of a new breed of scientists applying mechanomedicine – which blends engineering principles with biology – at the cellular level. In Joshua’s case, he’s looking at how our cells respond to stimuli and how we can harness those responses to cure osteoporosis, cancer and other debilitating diseases.
“For the last decade, pharmaceutical research has been dedicated to developing inhibitors or a 'miracle drug' to treat certain diseases,” explains Joshua. “While this has brought success to some, it’s not an option for more complex diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.”
According to Joshua, mechanomedicine could very well change the way we diagnose cancer and treat it, too. He cites CRISPR-Cas9, the powerful (and at times controversial) gene editing tool that’s been crucial to the study of mechanomedicine.
So far, the revolutionary technology has been used to treat blindness, remove malaria from mosquitoes, and even enable pig-to-human transplants and in doing so, offer hope for the human organ transplant shortage.
“In order to understand how cells operate and sense mechanical signals, we have to look at specific biological markers that work to translate these signals into particular biological responses,” explains Joshua. “This is where gene editing technology comes in. Tools such as CRISPR allow us to analyse certain cells to learn their function.
“In all uses of CRISPR technology, there is the underlying theme of ‘knocking out’ certain genes in order to understand how specific cells respond to mechanical stimuli.”
For Joshua, it’s all about adapting to and embracing new technologies as they arise. And continuing to ask ‘what if?’.
“UTS has very generous scientific infrastructure support, allowing scientists like myself access and ability to focus on asking the ‘why’ questions rather than ‘how’,” explains Joshua. “But, technology is only a small part. It’s the people and the culture that are our true source of success and I have truly enjoyed the interdisciplinary environment working with engineers, biologists, physicists and designers to come together with different worldviews to tackle current health challenges.”
Even now, Joshua continues to work with his colleagues at Harvard. Their most recent paper, which identifies the mechanisms by which irisin (the exercise hormone) is regulated by your bone cells to control bone formation, was accepted in the prestigious Cell journal.
Joshua says, "It sets the foundation towards understanding how bone remodelling is regulated by the exercise hormone irisin and takes us one step further into identifying how to treat bone diseases like osteoporosis."
“One thing,” he adds, “every researcher learns from Harvard is perseverance and embracing failure.”
It’s an ethos he’s brought to UTS, and one that he shares with his students and colleagues here. “We wake up every day and go to work knowing we will fail that day. But, we learn how to overcome that and look at what is at stake and that motivates us to continue.
“In my opinion, mechanomedicine represents truly modern science,” Joshua enthuses. “I work with biologists, physicists, IT experts and engineers – it really is a cumulative team and process. And together, we will radically change the face and pace of biological research.”