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Researcher profile: Dr Mark Agostino

Dr Mark Agostino, School of Biomedical Sciences, is a self-described ‘information sponge’. He has always had an interest in problem solving, and a passion for both computers and chemistry, so a career in scientific research seemed an obvious choice.


Dr Mark Agostino, School of Biomedical Sciences.
Dr Mark Agostino, School of Biomedical Sciences.

Dr Agostino’s research focuses on using computer-based methods to understand the structural basis of molecular interactions of biological and therapeutic relevance, and using this knowledge to aid in drug design. An Early Career Research Fellow, he has been awarded a number of grants and fellowships, including a Curtin University Research Fellowship.

Provide an overview of your research career to date.

I completed a Bachelor of Medicinal Chemistry with Honours (2004-2007) and a PhD in structure-based drug design under the supervision of Dr Elizabeth Yuriev, Dr Paul Ramsland and Associate Professor Philip Thompson (2008-2011) at Monash University.

I was awarded the Mollie Holman Doctoral Medal and the Bionomics Best Thesis Award for my PhD thesis, which focused on the development of computational methods for studying protein recognition of carbohydrates. In late 2012, I was awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) CJ Martin Early Career Fellowship (2013-2016), which saw me spend two years in the laboratory of Dr Juan Fernandez-Recio at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, where I developed skills in the computational study of protein-protein interactions.

I returned to Curtin in early 2015, and have since been developing a program in cancer research, for which I have been awarded a Cancer Council Western Australia Suzanne Cavanagh Early Career Investigator Grant (2016) and a Raine Priming Grant (2017-2018). I have recently commenced a Curtin Research Fellowship (awarded 2012, deferred to 2017-2021).

How long have you been at Curtin?

I have been at Curtin since early 2012, although with the two years in Spain it does not feel like it has really been five years!

Dr Agostino on his last day in Barcelona with his work colleagues, and the man who ran the work cafe who dubbed him 'canguro' (kangaroo).
Dr Agostino on his last day in Barcelona with his work colleagues, and the man who ran the work cafe who dubbed him 'canguro' (kangaroo).

Why were you drawn to academia/research as a career?

I have always been an avid problem solver and an information sponge, and a career in research is best able to harness these aptitudes constructively. I was always interested in computers and in chemistry, and my particular field of research brings together both of these interests. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of research for me is the potential to contribute to discoveries that could impact positively on people’s lives.

What are your current areas of research interest/specialisation?

My research focuses on understanding the structural basis of molecular interactions of biological and therapeutic relevance, and in using this knowledge to aid in drug design. I use a variety of computer-based methods to achieve this, in particular, automated molecular docking (for structurally fitting molecules together), homology modelling (to predict the likely structures of proteins) and molecular dynamics simulation (to investigate the dynamic behaviour of molecules). The majority of my current projects are focused on understanding interactions of relevance to cancer and immunology, as well on drug and vaccine design.

Who do you collaborate with?

I collaborate with researchers from a wide range of areas on a wide range of projects. I am presently working closely with the group of Professor Arun Dharmarajan here at Curtin on understanding the structural basis of the initial steps of Wnt signalling.

I collaborate with Professor Peter Scammells and Dr Ben Capuano, both leading medicinal chemistry groups at Monash University, on the structure-based design of noscapine analogues for cancer treatment. I work with Dr Paul Ramsland at RMIT on determining the structural basis of Fc-protein interactions, which are of central importance for antibody-mediated immunity. I work with Associate Professor Merrill Rowley at Monash University on the molecular immunology of GAD65, an autoantigen in type I diabetes. I also collaborate with Dr Alan Prem Kumar at the National University of Singapore on the interactions between DDX20, a cancer-associated protein, and other proteins found in cancer-associated biochemical pathways.

An example of the predicted structure of a protein-protein complex - LRP6 (rainbow and surface) with Wnt3a (grey) and Frizzed-7 (wheat).
An example of the predicted structure of a protein-protein complex - LRP6 (rainbow and surface) with Wnt3a (grey) and Frizzed-7 (wheat).

What have been the challenges and highlights of your career to date?

The biggest challenges associated with my career, as with any research career, would be the difficulty in attracting substantial project funding, the omnipresent threat of ‘publish or perish’, and the lack of a sense of personal stability, which comes with the uncertainty of long-term job security. The biggest challenge associated more specifically with my area of research is convincing ‘wet laboratory’ researchers of the validity of computational findings and the valuable contributions these can make to guide their research programs.

Additionally, although the skills I have are transferable to study virtually all aspects of biochemistry and pharmacology, it can be difficult to convince others (particularly funding agencies) that you are capable of pursuing a project in a biological area distinct from your previously published work.

That said, I would associate the biggest highlights of my career with progress towards overcoming some of the challenges listed above. In particular, my success in obtaining funding from medical research bodies – most recently, to pursue a project quite distinct from my previous work – acknowledgement of my research through awards from professional societies in chemistry and medical research , and the recent publication of my work in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, among the premier biochemistry journals, are all a testament to the growing understanding of the importance of computational results in biomedical research.

What are your interests outside of work? I am an avid music collector, with something like 1500 vinyl releases and about 300 CDs in my collection. About a third of it I collected during my time in Spain, when I would make weekend shopping trips to cities around Europe. It was great to finally get the whole collection in one place when I returned to Australia!