Dr Tu’uhevaha Kaitu’u-Lino

The University of Melbourne, Mercy Hospital for Women
Research Field: Medical Research–Women’s Health

Preeclampsia is a dreaded complication of pregnancy that kills 60,000 women globally each year and countless more babies. In preeclampsia, toxins escape from the placenta, spread throughout the mother, attacking her organs and causing her to become very sick. The only cure is to deliver the placenta and baby, often resulting in the delivery of preterm babies. Unfortunately, inflicting prematurity puts the baby at serious risk of death or disability. Dr. Kaitu’u-Lino’s research focuses on developing new medical treatments that can prevent the escape of toxins from the placenta. This year they discovered how a key toxin called ‘soluble endoglin’ is released from the placenta. A protein with a scissoring action called MMP-14 sidles up to endoglin and slices it off, allowing it to float off into the mum’s bloodstream, attacking her organs.

The implication is that a very specific drug target has been identified. Now there is work to develop such a drug, to prevent release of this toxin. If successful, such a drug could revolutionise treatment of this disease, saving countless mothers and babies. Tu’uhevaha’s love for science communication began in 2006 when she taught basic science to primary aged children at Monash Science Centre. Thereafter she participated in ASMR school tours and in 2007 further developed her communication skills when selected as one of sixteen national Fresh Scientist Finalists. In 2009 she was thrilled to be the first non-celebrity to win both the ‘Inspirational Role Model of the Year’ and ‘Fun, Fearless Female of the Year’ from Cosmopolitan magazine. During this voting period significant online public support was
received for her research into heavy menstrual bleeding and following the awards she undertook a number of radio and telephone interviews.

In 2010 she was invited to be an Australia Day ambassador, which involved speaking about her research to an audience in Sydney that included Federal politician Joe Hockey, local councilors and members of the public. In 2011, Tu’uhevaha was invited to participate in 3RRR 102.7FM’s Radiotherapy program as part of ASMR’s medical research week activities. She has also presented to community Probus groups and participated in Science in the Museum initiatives.