University of Newcastle receives more than $12 million for medical research

Cutting edge: Dr Kirsty Pringle and Professor Murray Cairns lead two of the research projects to receive funding. Picture: Simone De Peak
Cutting edge: Dr Kirsty Pringle and Professor Murray Cairns lead two of the research projects to receive funding. Picture: Simone De Peak

HUNTER researchers investigating how to delay the onset of premature labour have received a major boost.

Assistant Minister for Health Dr David Gillespie announced on Monday $12.2 million in National Health and Medical Research Council funding for University of Newcastle researchers.

Dr Kirsty Pringle and her team received $450,000 to explore the factors that inhibit the trigger of premature birth, which affects almost 10 per cent of pregnancies and is the single largest cause of death in infants.

Dr Pringle said male babies were more likely to be premature, miscarried and stillborn than females.

“We’ve demonstrated there’s a specific hormone called prorenin that we’ve found in the mother’s uterus is at a much higher level if she’s carrying a female baby,” Dr Pringle said.

“We think this hormone prorenin protects these women from going into labour early. 

“So this funding is going to allow us to investigate how prorenin informs timing of birth, but we’re also going to be looking at the mechanisms – so why male babies are at higher risk of being born preterm.

“We’re also looking at whether we can identify novel treatments so we can help those women at risk of going into preterm birth early.

“If we can get to the end of the three years and say ‘We’ve gained a greater understanding of why women go into labour and this is what we’ve got to target to prevent preterm labour’, that would be the goal.”

Professor Murray Cairns and his team received $1.1 million to examine complete genomics for mechanistic insight and precision treatments of schizophrenia.

“This is psychiatric research that I think will have an impact on the way people are treated in the future,” he said.

Professor Cairns said there was a “pandemic” of mental illness across the world, but most medication –  although vital – hadn’t changed since the 1950s and usually targeted symptoms and not the cause.

“We do know that genomic factors have a tremendous impact on connectivity of neurons and neurobehaviour,” he said.

“My project will use very high resolution analysis of the genome to identify the systems that are affected so we can determine the drugs that target these systems better.

“By also doing a more comprehensive analysis of genomes of individuals we will be able to better target drugs in a precision medicine mode.” 

He also received $640,000 to investigate the network biomarkers of traumatic stress resilience and sensitivity.

He will explore why some exposed to trauma respond adversely and others don’t.

Dr Gillespie said Hunter Medical Research Institute – a partnership between UON, Hunter New England Health and the community – was one of the country’s “premier research institutes”.

EARLIER

Future focused: Funding recipients with David Gillespie, centre in blue tie.

Future focused: Funding recipients with David Gillespie, centre in blue tie.

The University of Newcastle (UON) has attracted more than $12 million in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding, to investigate challenges ranging from pre-birth to asthma, cancer, mental illness and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Assistant Minister for Health Dr David Gillespie visited the Hunter Medical Research Institute on Monday to announce grants from $175,000 to $1.4 million for 17 research projects and three fellowships.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Dr Gillespie said.

“The nation and the world supports you in your relentless quest for acquiring new knowledge in science and medicine.”

Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), Professor Kevin Hall, said the support for Newcastle’s researchers was testament to the their reputation for conducting world-class research.

“The University of Newcastle boasts some of the most accomplished, innovative and internationally-renowned minds in health and medicine,” Professor Hall said.

“Research carried out at UON benefits not only the Hunter community, but also creates impact both nationally, and worldwide. Today's announcement of almost $12 million in new funding will allow our academics to continue to lead the way in health and medical research.”

The funding comprises

  • $1.4m to Professor Amanda Baker and her team to develop Quitlink: Accessible smoking cessation support for people living with severe and enduring mental illness. This project will use the peer workforce, whose development in mental health services is a national priority, to bridge the persistent gap between mental health services and Quitline.
  • $385,000 to Dr Chantal Donovan and her team to target remodelling in COPD, chronic asthma and Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). These diseases have enormous socioeconomic burdens in worldwide, and are amongst the most common, debilitating lung diseases, characterised by a loss of lung function leading to severe breathing difficulties.
  • $870,000 to Associate Professor Christopher Dayas and his team: Cognitive inflexibility and the development of pathological habits in brain diseases.
  • $1.1m to Associate Professor Murray Cairns and his team to examine complete genomics for mechanistic insight and precision treatments of schizophrenia.
  • $640,000 to Associate Professor Murray Cairns to investigate the network biomarkers of traumatic stress resilience and sensitivity. This project will explore why some individuals exposed to trauma respond adversely while others do not. Traumatic stress is a significant precursor for chronic mental and physical illness, which collectively represent a substantial burden of disease globally. 
  • $650,000 to Associate Professor Brett Graham and his team who will determine how a recently discovered network of nerve cells in the spinal cord contributes to extreme, persistent pain, and explore how it could be targeted to provide pain relief.
  • $1m to Associate Professor Christopher Grainge and his team to investigate whether  bronchoconstriction (airway narrowing) worsens asthma.
  • $925,000 to Professor Philip Hansbro and his team explain the role and potential for therapeutic targeting of toll-like-receptor 7 (TLR7) in emphysema and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
  • $905,000 to Professor Phil Hansbro and his team to define the roles and targeting interferon-epsilon as a new therapy for influenza in asthma and COPD.
  • $820,000 to Dr Gerard Kaiko and his team to investigate functional characterisation of novel metabolites in asthma and identification of new biomarkers.
  • $175,000 to Dr Heather Lee and her team to target cancer-initiating cells with DNA methyltransferase (DNMT) inhibitors, which may lead to the prevention of cancer progression.
  • $405,000 to Associate Professor Joerg Lehmann and his team: First ever system to continuously and directly measure the internal anatomy to guide breast cancer radiation treatment under deep inspiration breath hold.
  • $530,000 to Professor Brett Nixon and his team for their project: Elucidating the role of epididymosomes in the transfer of fertility-modulating proteins and regulatory classes of RNA to maturing spermatozoa.
  • $450,000 to Dr Kristy Pringle and her team to explore the factors that inhibit the trigger of preterm birth, the single largest cause of death in infants. This may lead to the identification of novel treatments that have the potential to delay the onset of preterm labour.
  • $510,000 to Associate Professor Rohan Walker and his team to investigate paralysis of microglial (a type of cell located throughout the brain and spinal cord) in post-stroke neurodegeneration (SND): help or hindrance?
  • $490,000 for Associate Professor Rohan Walker to assess stroke induced disturbances in glymphatic clearance: implications for brain repair
  • $675,000 Professor Xu Dong Zhang for their project: Role of lncRNA IDH1-AS1 in regulating c-Myc driven-glycolysis and tumorigenesis.

The NHMRC also announced three Translating Research Into Practice (TRIP) Fellowships to UON researchers:

  • Associate Professor Gillian Gould, School of Medicine and Public Health ($180,000)
  • Mrs Rachel Sutherland, School of Health Sciences ($180,000)
  • Dr Kate Bartlem, School of Psychology ($180,000) - offered under the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Next Generation Clinical Researchers Program from the MRFF Health Special Account.