Meet the Notre Dame graduate who helped develop a test for COVID-19

18 May 2020

For Dr Melissa Thomas, the satisfaction of overcoming a challenge is what makes an achievement all the more worthwhile and special. Melissa earned the title of ‘Doctor’ after completing her PhD at The University of Notre Dame’s Sydney Campus in 2018 and has since gone on to become a Senior Scientist at Genetic Signatures, a specialist molecular diagnostics company that recently developed a test for diagnosing COVID-19.

Melissa’s PhD focused on identifying abnormal methylation (that’s a DNA modification) in the development of cancers of the oesophagus. The aim was to find changes (biomarkers) that could be spotted in a simple blood test to identify disease requiring early medical intervention. We caught up with Melissa to talk science and find out how her work is contributing to the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic.

Since obtaining your PhD, where has your career taken you? 

​Since completing my degree I have been working with Genetic Signatures Limited in Sydney as a Product Development Scientist/Senior Scientist. It sounds like a big jump to go from methylation biomarker research in cancer to developing molecular diagnostics for infectious disease, but the company employs many of the same techniques that I had previously used in my research, so it was actually the perfect fit in skills!

Tell us a bit more about Genetic Signatures and your role there.

Genetic Signatures is a molecular diagnostics company that produces test kits to identify a wide variety of infectious pathogens. The key to all our testing is using sodium bisulphite conversion to simplify nucleic acid sequence from four bases to just three (this was also a cornerstone technique in my cancer research). This enables detection of multiple strains/types of each pathogen without an over-complicated assay design.

As a Product Development Scientist/Senior Scientist, I am part of the team responsible for the development of new EasyScreen Detection Kits. My major focus has been the development of a test for the causal pathogens – viral, bacterial and fungal – for meningitis. I've also done work on developing a transplant panel (for identification of viruses that commonly cause infection after an organ transplant), a tick-borne disease panel and, of course, recently been involved in getting our COVID-19 test ready and out the door for people in Australia and around the world.

How was the COVID-19 test developed?

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Genetic Signatures already had a pan-coronavirus test (targeting the six types of coronavirus known to infect humans), as part of our respiratory panel. So once the pandemic strain was sequenced, we designed a test specific for that particular strain. The process normally takes longer than just a few months, but everyone in our small company dropped everything and worked non-stop to get the test done. All research and development work was temporarily suspended and the whole team helped with the many tasks needed to take a test from development stage through to a product approved for use. I worked on improving assay sensitivity, performing experiments to get the data needed for FDA approval and Emergency Use Authorisation, as well as helping to prepare all the documentation required.

What are your future career goals?

I really enjoy working in research and development for Genetic Signatures. They are a great company that supported me through a difficult maternity leave. I hope to continue my work with them, turning research and development into finished products that ultimately make a difference in people’s lives. I hope that my work will one day change the outcome for someone; that because of the work I've done, someone is alive who perhaps wouldn't have been. That’s the ultimate job satisfaction, don't you think?

Do you believe what you learnt at Notre Dame gave you an advantage in your chosen field? 

Absolutely. I was lucky enough to undertake my PhD with an excellent supervisor (Professor Reginald Lord, Head of Surgery at Notre Dame’s School of Medicine, Sydney) and co-supervisor (Professor Sue Clark at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research), who enabled me to not only extend my laboratory skills, but learn how to handle huge data sets, manage all aspects of a multi-faceted project and improve my writing skills (thanks to a 359-page thesis!).


Media Contact: Breyon Gibbs : +61 8 9433 0569 | breyon.gibbs@nd.edu.au