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Hope for diabetics in three-minute thesis

Clare Peddie, September 16, 2020 6:30PM The Advertiser

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University of Adelaide PhD candidate Khalia Primer, 23, is working on gene therapy to treat diabetic ulcers. Picture: Dean Martin media_cameraUniversity of Adelaide PhD candidate Khalia Primer, 23, is working on gene therapy to treat diabetic ulcers. Picture: Dean Martin


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Around the world, six people lose part of their lower leg from diabetes complications every three minutes.

That’s the same amount of time Khalia Primer has to tell the world about her gene therapy* research that she hopes will eventually save many patients’ legs.

The PhD* student won first prize in the University of Adelaide’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, as well as the people’s choice and student choice awards.

Participants have to communicate three or more years of complex research into talks of just 180 seconds.

Along with the winners of the UniSA and Flinders University competitions, Ms Primer will progress to the Asia-Pacific 3MT Competition on October 1, when all of the finalists will compete to win a $5000 research grant.

The gene therapy to heal the ulcers* that result in amputations* has “a long way to go” before it can be used in patients.

But Ms Primer said preclinical* results showed the concept was worth exploring, considering there were no effective therapies to keep the “blood vessel builders” alive for wound repair.

She said high blood-sugar levels in diabetics distracted or disabled a gene called PDK4, which normally shut down mitochondria – the energy suppliers of cells – to save oxygen for wound repair.

“I’m creating a gene therapy that will increase the amounts of PDK4 in our blood-vessel builders as they enter the wound environment,” she said. “That extra PDK4 will act as a reminder to these cells to shut down their mitochondria, even if there’s heaps of blood sugar around to distract them.”

Hold your breath! Helping our blood vessel builders survive in diabetes

Ms Primer, 23, from Cleve on the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, loves her chosen area of research.

“It can definitely be difficult to wrap your head around all the different interactions but I love it,” she said.

“It’s like a little puzzle and I have a lot of fun trying to work out how different things interact and how that changes in different disease contexts.

“It’s a real fun challenge for me.”

She said it was a “massive surprise” to win the Adelaide University competition because she had been so impressed by all of the other entrants’ videos but then “they kept saying my name again and again”.

A PhD thesis — produced as a result of PhD research — is a very long, formal, structured document published in research journals. They’re not widely read or always easy to understand for people who aren’t experts in that area of knowledge.

The competition enables contestants to improve their communication skills, gain skills to help present their research to a wider audience and also receive international peer review.

UniSA winner Gabriela Dias Guimaraes wowed judges with a proposal for a new way to reduce construction waste. Flinders University winner Alex Canty is bringing a new perspective to post-traumatic stress disorder*.


  • gene therapy: new technique that puts genetic material into cells to help fix a problem
  • PhD: a high-level research qualification called a Doctor of Philosophy
  • ulcers: open sore
  • amputations: surgical removal of limbs
  • preclinical: in a laboratory, before the stage of treating patients in hospitals
  • post-traumatic stress disorder: a disorder that comes from failing to recover after experiencing trauma


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Mozzie bite breakthrough

How to create healthy children

Damage soft drink can do to your body (with diabetes explainer)


  1. What is Kahlia’s research about?
  2. How old is Kahlia and where is she from?
  3. How does she feel about her work?
  4. How is a three-minute thesis different to a normal thesis?
  5. What do the contestants get out of making the videos?


1. Three Minute Thesis Critique
After watching Khalia Primer’s video presenting her research, write down 3-5 points critiquing her video. Give some positive and negative feedback about her presentation style and the research itself.

How would you describe Khalia’s presentation style?

Write down the main reason why you think Khalia won first prize, as well as people’s choice and student’s choice in this competition?

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Personal and social

2. Extension
Explain in your own words how you think increasing the PDK4 gene could help other people with wounds and not just diabetics?

Why is saving the legs of people with diabetes important research to undertake?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Science, Critical and creative thinking

Verb adventures
With a partner see if you can identify all the doing words/verbs in this text. Highlight them in yellow and then make a list of them all down your page. Now see if you and your partner can come up with a synonym for the chosen verb. Make sure it still makes sense in the context it was taken from.

Try to replace some of the original verbs with your synonyms and discuss if any are better and why.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What complex idea would you like explained in three minutes?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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