• Dr Shane Ingrey is (University of New South Wales)Source: University of New South Wales
The recent graduate's research could eventually lead to new treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, viral infections or even cancer.
Alyssa Braithwaite

25 May 2016 - 9:53 AM  UPDATED 25 May 2016 - 9:53 AM

When he was growing up, if Dr Shane Ingrey got a sore throat, an infected wound or a boil, he knew where to turn.

The Dunghutti/Dharawal man, who hails from the La Perouse Aboriginal community in Sydney, would ask his Nan - an elder who knew all about traditional medicine.

"She'd say, 'go and put this plant on it, this plant will suck all the stuff out for you'," Ingrey tells SBS Science. "So we would always go out and do what she said, and that would be [the end of] that."

A naturally inquisitive youngster, Ingrey was always drawn to science and maths at school, and more specifically biology and chemistry when he got to high school.

He completed a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology, and then just last year Ingrey graduated from the University of New South Wales with a PhD in microbiology, using modern science to shine a spotlight on the medicinal potential of native plants.

"I wanted to do something around my culture, and we found a good way of mixing traditional knowledge with all the science and stuff that I like to do, looking at traditional medicine plants from around Botany Bay," Ingrey says.

He isolated endophytes - bacteria and fungi that live in plant tissue - and screened their DNA for genes that produce antibiotic proteins.

When the tests came back positive, he extracted the natural products from these organisms and tested them again for antibacterial and antifungal activity.

Ingrey identified five natural substances already known to have antibiotic qualities, as well as a previously unknown polyketide — a compound produced by the same class of enzymes that generates many modern pharmaceuticals and insecticides.

Ingrey's findings could produce new treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, viral infections or even cancer.

"Out of my research I've found one novel compound that was antibacterial that we tested, but there's untapped potential out there," Ingrey says of traditional Indigenous medicine.

"You could be looking at new antibiotics to fight against these resistant bugs today. And because we only tested on antibacterial and antifungal, you could expand it out and look at antiviral and anti-cancer. The potential is there."

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Recording the traditional knowledge

Sadly Ingrey's Nan passed away while he was completing his studies, so she never saw all that her grandson achieved after being inspired by her knowledge.

But he is very proud of what he's been able to do with the information she taught him.

"It was empowering, using the knowledge of my Nan and her sister and what we've been taught and has been passed down for thousands and thousands of years, and providing a possible link to explain why. I felt that was a really good moment," Ingrey says.

And because all this knowledge is passed on by word of mouth and not written down, he's keen to ensure the information isn't lost over time.

"Four elders that I spoke to during my PhD, elders from our community, have passed away, so using this information and bringing it into science is also like documenting it as well, so that they don't take the information with them," he says.

Ingrey has applied for an Australian Research Council grant to continue and expand his work. In the meantime he is working with Indigenous year 11 and 12 students at Matraville Sports High School, trying to get them interested in pursuing tertiary education.

"I'm just trying to spark an interest - not only in science but just in education," he says.

"I'm trying to get them to do the best they can and hopefully we can get more Indigenous scientists."

SBS Science in collaboration with NITV is showcasing Indigenous Australian scientists. Stay tuned for more profiles in this series over the following weeks! 

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