In Conversation, ABC Radio National | 9 June 2005
Broadcast on In Conversation with Robyn Williams, ABC Radio National, 9 June 2005
Dr Alan Finkel of Melbourne was one of those recognised in the latest Clunies Ross awards for scientific excellence. He tells how he managed to develop technology able to get individual nerve cells to talk. This took off and led to an industry based here and in America. Dr Finkel has used part of his fortune to fund COSMOS, a science magazine to be launched in Australia on June 22nd.
Robyn Williams: Here comes COSMOS. And as you’ll hear, I have to declare an interest as I’m involved with the new science magazine’s editorial board. COSMOS is launched on the 22nd of this month, just two weeks away, and the man who helped set it up is my guest this week, Alan Finkel. But that’s not the main reason I’m talking to him, for Dr Finkel was one of those awarded a Clunies Ross Academy of Technology Sciences Prize in April. It was for his pioneering and ultimately very rewarding work developing technology to investigate the nervous system. He’s the founder of Axon Instruments. So, Alan, business, science, publishing – what’s your job description right now?
Alan Finkel: Well, for 21 years, 22 nearly, I was the CEO of Axon Instruments, which is also a California corporation, but we were taken over by Molecular Devises in July of last year and I’ve stayed on as the chief technology officer and also the senior vice president in charge of all engineering.
Robyn Williams: And you live in Melbourne.
Alan Finkel: I do live in Melbourne. I do have a reputation as being one of the world’s longest distance commuters because I go about once a month to America. That’s where head office is. That’s where most of the activity is.
Robyn Williams: First of all, congratulations. I think it’s wonderful that you got that prize. What happened? What was the evening like?
Alan Finkel: Well, the evening was wonderful. It’s quite a gala affair, where six recipients are given the Clunies Ross Award for science and technology that’s benefited Australia. And they focus on the recipients. There’s a little video that’s been prepared well in advance on each of the recipients, and then each of us was given the chance to make a short speech about something that was important to us or thanks to the people that helped make it possible.
Robyn Williams: And it’s been a vintage year because Fiona Wood was another recipient. She is in fact the Australian of the Year.
Alan Finkel: That’s right and they showed some wonderful examples of the work that she and her colleagues have been doing on skin repair that can help avoid the need for serious grafts.
Robyn Williams: After a burn, yes, it’s quite remarkable. But what about your own work? It was based on the axon, that is the nerve, the nerve fibre. Take us back to what happened.
Alan Finkel: Sure. Well the work was given to me for the work that I did a long time ago, on the early 1980s when I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra at the Australian National University. I was working with the principal investigator Professor Steve Redmond who was very interested in the spinal chord motor neurons that are involved in reflex control of muscles and he wanted to perform a kind of experiment called a voltage clamp experiment which is an esoteric name and I’ll explain the purpose which was to control the electrical environment of a single nerve cell, and understand how that nerve cell interacted with it’s neighbours in the reflex pathway. Now traditionally in order to do this voltage clamp experiment, you have to stick two electrodes into the nerve cell and those cells would be typically cultured in a dish or extracted from an animal and quite visible through the microscope, and the electrodes would be advanced using a micro manipulator to give you the precision you need to hit a very tiny target that could be as small ten microns in diameter.
Robyn Williams: Less than a hair.
Alan Finkel: Oh, substantially less than a hair, maybe a quarter or a fifth the diameter of a hair. And the tips of the electrodes that go into these small cells are an order of magnitude smaller again. They’re typically a micron or a tenth of a micron.
Robyn Williams: It is difficult!
Alan Finkel: It is extremely difficult even if you can see. But the motor neurons that Steve wanted to investigate were about a millimetre into the spinal cord tissue and invisible. And the chances of dead reckoning, to get two electrodes into the one cell are effectively zero. So, we couldn’t do that. So, my job became to develop an alternative. And so what I did I developed an electronic amplifier that took one electrode that you could get in blind just by navigating through the spinal cord until you identified the typical electrical activity of the kind of motor neuron you’re looking for; take that electrode and make it do the job of two electrodes using a technique called multiplexing which really meant that the amplifier uses the electrode for a few micro-seconds as a voltage recording electrode, then it switched the electrode out of that mode into a current-passing mode. And very rapidly, typically 10-15 thousand times a second it would toggle between those two modes and separate them out into one continuous voltage recording and one continuous current injection. And therefore, mimic this very powerful technique called voltage clamp that tells you what the membrane electrical current is at any given moment in time, with millisecond resolution.
Robyn Williams: So why do you want to listen to that little nerve in the first place?
Alan Finkel: The goal of course at that time especially before the current day pharmaceutical drive was just fundamental understanding. How does the network work? Not only in this case in the spinal cord but other investigators asking equivalent challenging questions in the brain.
Robyn Williams: How do the nerves talk to each other?
Alan Finkel: How do the nerves talk to each other. We have an enormous number, we have ten billion neurons in the brain and most people if you ask them what would be involved in recording that electrical activity they would imagine in their mind’s eye the kind of thing you’d see on television which is shaven head and the electrodes on the surface of the scalp recording the EEG. Well the EEG is the cumulative response of those ten billion nerve cells. And studying the brain that way is like looking at the macro economy of the planet. Whereas the people the scientists that are investigating individual nerve cells are looking at the micro economy of the family or even an individual person within the family. So our goal was to look at the electrical activity of those individual nerve cells and how do they communicate along their own length, how do they communicate with their neighbours, how do they integrate sensory inputs and make a decision. How do they underline learning, memory, consciousness; all those wonderful things that make us human beings.
Robyn Williams: And you found a way of doing this effectively and efficiently and out of it came a sort of mini industry.
Alan Finkel: Correct. The technique of voltage clamp pre-dated my involvement by a long shot. But modifying the voltage clamp so that it could be done with one electrode in a cell that wouldn’t normally be accessible either because it’s not visible like I mentioned or because it’s so small that you can’t even get two electrodes into it; that to become the foundation of a company that I started called Axon Instruments in 1983 in California.
Robyn Williams: You said that of course initially it was for basic research but obviously there’s some applied work that flows from it, otherwise there wouldn’t be companies involved in doing all that busy investment and so forth.
Alan Finkel: Up until about five years ago, all the obvious applications, were in pure research. And the industry was servicing the needs of several tens of thousands of neuroscientists around the world studying how these systems work. But it turns out that the protein that mediates electrical activity, which is called an ion channel, is a culprit in many, many diseases. Insomnia, pain, anxiety, even things you wouldn’t think of as being nervous system diseases such as diabetes and some kinds of cancer. And so the drug companies have a fairly substantial interest in studying and working with these ion channel proteins as targets for their medicines to act against. And in the last five years there’s been an enormous explosion of tools, of instruments, that are making it possible for the drug industry, the pharmaceutical companies and the big bio-tech companies to automate the process of voltage clamp recording from cells. And we’ve been very involved in that process ourselves.
Robyn Williams: Which means you have to go to America once a month. How do you take that sort of travel? Can you still do it at your age? I couldn’t!
Alan Finkel: The first and most important thing is not to let it get to you. I’m sure that if I ever started letting myself begin to get frustrated about travelling so much it would cascade into an explosion of frustration. And of course, equally important is taking melatonin when I fly.
Robyn Williams: Oh yes! Very effective!
Alan Finkel: And taking coffee when I fly west.
Robyn Williams: Yes, someone else who does similar sorts of things to the west coast of the United States and that’s Peter Farrell of Resmed. It’s quite interesting that there are a number of scientifically based people from Australia who have done that sort of thing, and fostered work that actually happens has been taken up in America. I’ve just given two examples, you and Peter. Are there many more do you think?
Alan Finkel: Oh, I’m sure there are a lot and there are probably many people who believe that that’s the only way that you can actually get a high-tech industry off the ground. I didn’t do it because I thought it was the only way to start a company, I did it because my wife got a post-doctoral position in California at UCSF and I followed my wife at the time I was ready to start the company. And San Francisco is a fantastic place. I think there are probably fewer barriers to starting a high-tech company there than anywhere else. But I think in a modern world because of high tech it’s possible to start a biotech company or a high-tech company in Australia and give it a good go. But there is a very widespread belief that you have to make your front an American front. And I think that’s possibly an indication of the naivety of the thinking from the Australian investment community in particular.
Robyn Williams: It’s the investors rather than trying to deal effectively with the complex world outside which is so much outside the experience perhaps of many Australians.
Alan Finkel: Like everything, it’s complex. And I think that it’s to a large respect the investors. There’s also the correct impression that companies have, when they’re starting in America, that the American customers they deal with are a little bit insecure dealing with a foreign company, particularly an antipodean company. But the solution to that isn’t necessarily to set up headquarters in America, the solution is to set up a solid sales service and distribution outfit in America. I think people over-react to some extent.
Robyn Williams: Well I’m talking to Dr Alan Finkel who’s just won the Clunies Ross Prize, one of six, just a couple of weeks ago, and by coincidence he’s also the person who has got a new science magazine off the ground. I must declare an interest in that I’ve been asked to be chair of the advisory committee which includes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, which is something of a coup I must say. I don’t know how you chair Buzz Aldrin; I’m going to find out. Alan what made you go ahead with this venture because single publications are a bit of a challenge. You know normally in publications; you go for several magazines and several newspapers together. Why did you decide to go ahead with COSMOS?
Alan Finkel: Well to go with your last point first, I certainly has no intention of trying to start up a family of magazines because I don’t have any experience and that would be taking on more than I can chew. I’ve always been risk-inclined and combined that with a love of science and communicating science to people. I think in retrospect it’s an obvious place to go. I’ve got a little bit more time, although I’m still working full time for Molecular Devices, I do have a little bit more time now that I’m no longer the CEO and I’m certainly better funded now that the company has been acquired by an American company. And by luck, several years ago, I met Wilson da Silva who is the editor of COSMOS magazine. He’s had a fantastic history on television and in press. He’s the president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, he edited a magazine called Newton and 21C, both of which I admired very much.
Robyn Williams: And he was on Quantum as well.
Alan Finkel: He was a television presenter on Quantum. And Newton, for reasons I think has nothing to do with Wilson, folded a few years ago. And I was really disappointed I was an avid reader of that magazine. Wilson and I got in touch about a year ago and talked about the importance of science communication and just the vision for what a really good magazine could do to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs and the next generation of scientists and just people that love science and its involvement in society. And I was impressed with his vision. Kylie Ahern is the publisher. I was impressed with her vision and her experience and decided to become the substantial investor of the company that is putting out COSMOS magazine; 22nd June is the launch issue.
Robyn Williams: Nervous about it?
Alan Finkel: No actually! The closer we get to it the more confident I am. The vision that we shared is starting to manifest itself. This magazine won’t be like any other science magazine that you’ve seen before. It will tackle stories in the way that a short story novelist would write them, but it will not trivialise the science. It’ll really communicate the issues. It’ll be glossy, very pictorial, a collectible magazine. We like to think of it as the Vanity Fair of science magazines. And the feedback we’ve got from running the concept past people has been very, very positive. The contributors are all coming together. The work’s being done. I’m frankly more excited to see it hit the shelves than I am nervous about its potential.
Robyn Williams: And of course, the wife you mentioned who you followed to California is in fact a science writer.
Alan Finkel: She certainly is.
Robyn Williams: Wonderful coincidence.
Alan Finkel: She certainly is. And I hope that she’ll be contributing to the magazine. She’s recently published a book on stem cells, which has received a terrific response, and I think that we’re all going to get a lot of satisfaction out of having some contribution to this wonderful magazine COSMOS.