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Payne’s passion drives
MS research forward

By Lisa Burling, LBPR

When you ask Dr Natalie Payne - Research Fellow in the Nagy Laboratory at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) - about her motivation for focusing on Multiple Sclerosis (MS) research, her answer immediately reveals a passion for her work that extends well beyond the petri dish.


Like many scientists, I have a pure love of trying to understand complex biological processes. But ultimately I hope that the work I do will contribute towards improving the life of people with MS and more broadly to individuals suffering from other health conditions.  It’s an exciting and transformative time to be in biomedical research due to the rapid pace in technological advancements.”

Dr Payne has always had an interest in biology and understanding human disease. However, it wasn’t until she began her PhD in Professor Claude’s Bernard research group at the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories just over a decade ago that she found MS was an area of research she was really passionate about pursuing as a career.

“MS is a complex disease and it is clear that we cannot treat it by simply suppressing the immune system. Being able to manipulate the immune response to be reparative rather than destructive is a concept I find fascinating. It’s extremely relevant to understanding and successfully preventing progression of MS.”

Dr Payne has undoubtedly chosen a career path that suits her talents, skills and expertise – she was awarded the Bruce Stone third year Biochemistry prize for the top mark in third year biochemistry during her undergraduate degree at La Trobe University, and a Trish Foundation PhD scholarship in 2007. Dr Payne has gone on to be recognised with a number of other accolades for her outstanding contribution to MS research including the Monash University postgraduate publication award in 2011 and the MS Research Australia Ian Ballard Travel Fellowship in 2013.

“Being able to manipulate the immune response to be reparative rather than destructive is a concept I find fascinating. It’s extremely relevant to understanding and successfully preventing progression of MS.”    

Dr Payne has also been successful in securing a number of incubator grants – one in 2015 to characterise iPSC cells from MS patients, which is currently being prepared for publication; and two incubator grants in 2017, both funded by the Trish Foundation.

One of these incubator grant funds a collaborative project led by Dr Claire McCoy, which aims to investigate a molecule involved in switching a specific immune cell type from an inflammatory tissue-destructive phenotype to a regenerative phenotype associated with remyelination. Dr Payne is the lead investigator on the second incubator grant project, which is focused on using gene-edited stem cells to deliver therapeutic proteins. 

Dr Payne explains further: “We have modified cells at the DNA level so they can be used as mini-factories that pump out therapeutic proteins after receiving an “on” signal. Our approach is possible because the cells have also been modified with a safety switch that controls their proliferation and therefore alleviates the safety concerns surrounding the use of cell therapies in patients.

“Our current research aims to apply this approach to MS, by creating cellular mini-factories to deliver a naturally occurring protein (interleukin-1 receptor 2, IL-1R2) that can “mop up” IL-1β, an inflammatory molecule that promotes neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration in MS. We have successfully engineered cells to produce IL-1R2 in an inducible manner and are now using different experimental models to determine how this approach to blocking IL-1β impacts the immune response and tissue damage within the central nervous system.”

Dr Payne and her team have applied for additional funding to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the CASS Foundation in Australia, and the National MS Society in the US.

“This additional funding will allow us to develop cellular mini-factories that can be transplanted into patients of diverse genetic backgrounds without being rejected by the immune system, as is observed when organs are transplanted between individuals.” 

A typical day for Dr Payne and her team in the lab is largely focused on cell-based therapies, so it always includes looking after the cells they have in culture – checking them under the microscope, feeding them, and replating them into new tissue culture dishes so they have room to grow.

“We have engineered our cells to perform novel functions and so they must be tested and validated using different laboratory models”, she explains. “These experiment can take anywhere from a day to several months if the gene modified cells are being tested in animal models of MS.”

Aside from laboratory based work, much of Dr Payne’s time is spent at the desk analysing data, writing grants, reading papers as well as meeting with students and collaborators to plan experiments, as well as attending seminars.

When not undertaking her incredibly important MS research work, Dr Payne can be found with her husband Cameron and their 4-year-old daughter Alana on their 5.7 acre property outside of Melbourne. She relishes spending time outdoors when so much of her work is spent inside.

“We moved here from a two bedroom flat in the inner city three years ago; it’s a completely different lifestyle but I love being able to enjoy time outdoors and the native wildlife, especially since there are many working days when I don’t get a chance to go outside.”

“I think being able to reverse the damage and neurological disability in MS patients is the holy grail of MS research.”    

Dr Payne believes being able to reverse the damage and neurological disability in MS patients is the holy grail of MS research.

“For this to be successful we need a multifaceted approach that includes understanding how we can influence the immune response in MS to promote repair. This is an area that is of great interest to me.”


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