News / 18 October 2017

When asked about the Griffith University Discovery Award from Research Australia, Dr. Avnika Ruparelia seemed pretty chuffed. “It’s probably one of my greatest achievements” she beamed. And why wouldn’t it be? Her research into identifying therapies for the treatment of myofibrillar myopathy has earned national recognition through this award. Go Avnika!

Dr. Avnika Ruparelia, identifying therapies for the treatment of myofibrillar myopathy through the model organism, Zebrafish.
Dr. Avnika Ruparelia, identifying therapies for the treatment of myofibrillar myopathy through the model organism, zebrafish.

Taking the first steps in her exciting career, Avnika graduated from Monash University and UCLA with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science / Science. As a new graduate and one of the first to be offered a placement, she took part in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at ARMI. In the following years, Avnika completed her honours and PhD, supervised by Dr. Bryson-Richardson (Monash University) and Professor Peter Currie (ARMI). “Mentors have been instrumental in my success” she recalled fondly, when asked to describe her supervisors.

It was as a PhD student in 2011 that Avnika explored the causes of muscle weakness and therapeutics for a group of late onset muscle disorders known as myofibrillar myopathies. Patients affected with the disease suffer progressive muscle weakness and reduced life expectancy. Respiratory muscle failure and cardiac complications are the result of such symptoms. There is no treatment available for the disease but there have been remarkable efforts to change this. With the research put in by Avnika and many other strong scientists, we hope that change is on the horizon!

Avnika’s ground breaking research involves generated novel zebrafish. These act as model organisms of myofibrillar myopathy to mirror the features seen in patients. Using these models, Avnika was able to research why symptoms don’t show until adolescence and why they increased in severity as the disease progressed. Collected results revealed potential strategies that could prevent further muscle damage in patients and in turn provide a therapeutic benefit. To continue her research, Avnika continued her work as post doctoral researcher to identify compounds through drug screening that ameliorated the pathology seen in myofibrillar myopathy. Today, some of these compounds are already approved for use in patients for the treatment of other diseases. Avnika hopes that the compounds she has identified will result in a treatment of myofibrillar myopathy that can be rapidly translated into a clinical setting.

Dr Avnika Ruparelia at the Research Australia Awards Night
Dr Avnika Ruparelia at the Research Australia Awards Night.

Today, Avnika refers to her work in myofibrillar myopathies as her ‘favourite’ to date, having covered the ‘complete spectrum’ of research (from fundamental biology to therapy identification). Here at ARMI, we’re proud to say her hard work and passion has been recognised! Just recently, Avnika was awarded the Churchill Fellowship: Dr Dorothea Sandars and Irene Lee Fellowship.

The Churchill fellowship, a highly prestigious fellowship will allow Avnika to travel to Germany. There, she can further her knowledge and gain new insight on how to maintain and use the unique killifish as a model for research on ageing. But why killifish? Killifish have the shortest known lifespan of a vertebrate species in captivity. This makes them an invaluable model to study ageing and age-related muscle diseases. Very relevant to myofibrillar myopathies.

Whilst in Germany, Avnika plans to visit the Leibniz Institute of Aging (Jena, Germany). There she will work with Prof Christoph Englert, a researcher who has made remarkable scientific contributions using killifish as a model. There she wishes to learn how to handle and successfully breed killifish for research purposes. Consequently, she will obtain preliminary data pertaining to age related muscle wasting during her eight weeks stay. She hopes that this will allow her to establish a unique area of expertise that is not currently available in Australia, resulting in the establishment of the first Australian killifish research laboratory at ARMI which she says has been ‘her long term goal’.

Dr. Avnika Ruparelia has experienced tremendous success as a multi-award winner in both the Griffith University Discovery Award and the Churchill Fellowship. We’re incredibly humbled to have her here as part of ARMI and very pleased she decided to pursue research. Originally from Kenya, Avnika came to Australia with the intention of becoming a doctor. However she remarked “once I got exposed to research during my undergraduate studies, I quickly changed my career pathway and here I am 10 years later loving what I do!”, and we’re so glad that you did. 

Dr Avnika Ruparelia of ARMI sitting in a laboratory with microscope
Dr. Avnika Ruparelia at the ARMI laboratory.