Fulbright Scholar investigates the secret life of a healthy gut

Melody Dobronin

QUT PhD student Melody Dobrinin has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to travel to the United States to further her research into how gut-friendly bacteria can be turned into probiotics to treat digestive disease.

Ms Dobrinin will head to the US next year to spend 10 months at The Rockefeller University – a private biomedical research and graduate-only university in New York City.

She is currently doing a PhD at the QUT Centre for Microbiome Research in Brisbane, where she has been examining the bacteria that live in people’s guts to work out how healthy people differ to those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

She hopes her research will one day benefit not only those with digestive disease, but people with other health concerns like depression, obesity and diabetes, which are increasingly being linked to gut health.

The video above, Microbial Firefighters, is Ms Dobrinin’s winning entry in the 2022 QUT Three Minute Thesis competition for postgraduate researchers.  She also won the event’s People’s Choice Award.

Ms Dobrinin has had a lifelong interest in health – partially sparked by her own experiences with gut health problems and a wheat-free diet – but originally trained as a linguist.

The Fulbright Scholarship to New York will be her second experience of studying abroad at a prestigious institution.  She completed a Master of Philosophy in Linguistics at the University of Cambridge and then worked as a project manager at Google in London, where she oversaw the linguistic development of the Google Australia virtual assistant.

Six years ago she also created an app to help people with restrictive diets to find food wherever they went.

“But during this project I realised that creating apps to meet this aim was only treating a surface symptom of a larger health issue,” she said.

“So I decided to study a diploma of science to learn more about this field, and subsequently started my PhD to contribute to the greater aim of curing gut-related disease.

“Our health is surprisingly related to the community of micro-organisms that inhabit our gut.

“My research involves looking at the gut microbiome of healthy people – the bacteria and micro-organisms that live in the gut – and comparing this to people with inflammatory bowel disease.

“I’m identifying which species of gut bacteria are anti-inflammatory, and aim aiming to turn them into probiotic treatments for people lack them in their gut microbiome.

“Many of these helpful bacteria have never been grown in a lab before – they are very fussy.  So a big part of my research is working out what they need to live.

“If this research is successful, I will develop the first live bacterial therapeutic to specifically treat IBD.”

Ms Dobrinin said scientists and health experts were only just beginning to understand the secrets of our inner gut health.

“I really believe that one day you will test your gut microbiome as often as you now test your blood – you would be astonished at the number and range of diseases that are associated with the gut,” she said.

“Gut microbiome research around the world – including my study – is creating this new reality and ushering in a new age of medicine.

“The gut microbiome is associated with a huge number of impairments, including anxiety and depression, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity and diabetes.

“If this probiotic development process works, then I might be able to use it to treat these other impairments.

“Together with IBD, these conditions affect an estimated two-thirds of the Australian population.”

Ms Dobrinin is completing her PhD studies through the QUT Centre for Microbiome Research and School of Biomedical Sciences (Faculty of Health), supported by a Microba Pty Ltd scholarship and supervised by Professor Gene Tyson, Dr Páraic Ó Cuív, Associate Professor Tony Kenna, and Associate Professor Lutz Krause.

Through her Fulbright Future Scholarship, she will isolate new bacterium-derived molecules to treat inflammatory bowel disease at The Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Genetically Encoded Small Molecules, supervised by Professor Sean Brady.

Ms Dobrinin is from Gladstone in central Queensland and a graduate of Gladstone West State School and Gladstone State High School.

“I am very proud to have come from Gladstone, and I genuinely believe that I would not be the person I am today without the support of the Gladstone community,” she said.

“There are many unsung heroes in places like Gladstone that really made it a great place to grow up.

“Some of these include the Rotary Club of Port Curtis, which supported me to go to Brazil for a year on exchange and also helped my school’s Interact Club. The Gladstone Eisteddfod association volunteers put on an eisteddfod for Gladstone children every year and it was there, through performing, that I gained confidence and a love of theatre and drama.  This is an interest I still pursue, through making science videos for my YouTube channel.

“This wonderful Gladstone community also includes café and restaurant owners who added gluten free food to their menu for me when I was growing up, and my school teachers who travelled to Rockhampton to attend academic competitions with us.”

Ms Dobrinin said she had enjoyed living in London and Brazil, and was looking forward to immersing herself in New York for 10 months.

“Living in different countries helps open people up to new ways of thinking and different ways of approaching life,” she said.

“We can learn to be more accepting and more generous, shifting our focus away from ‘being right’ towards mutual understanding and collaboration.”