UON researchers have been awarded funding for an array of projects including stroke, asthma, mental health and cancer treatment.

2017 NHMRC Project Grants funding success

Monday, 5 December 2016


The University of Newcastle (UON) has been awarded 14 NHMRC Projects Grants and one Career Development Fellowship with total funding of $10.8 million.

UON researchers have been awarded funding for a diverse array of health and medical projects including stroke, asthma, mental health and cancer treatment.

Read more about the projects here:

Dr Chris Dayas and Professor Brett Graham will work together with national and an international researchers from UNSW and Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Calgary, Canada to explore hypothalamic control of motivated behaviour. The hypothalamus is part of the brain controlling motivation. Circuits in the hypothalamus are highly plastic and sensitive to experience, i.e. they learn and remember.  However, this plasticity renders hypothalamic circuits vulnerable to corruption by drugs, fatty foods and stress. These changes may lead to debilitating conditions such as addiction and obesity. The team aim to understand how LH circuits are rewired by rewards and stress and drive pathological behaviour long after the stimulus is removed. This research aims to understand the brain pathways in health and disease in order to facilitate new, and more effective therapies. Conditions such as depression and addiction have an enormous impact on quality of life, and impact on the economy. Understanding these conditions can lead to advances in treatment options and better health outcomes for our population.

Professor Billie Bonevski is leading a team of nine researchers to study “Healthy living after stroke: An online intervention for improving stroke survivor health behaviours and quality of life.” People who have had a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) are at high risk of further strokes: the risk is six-times higher than the risk of first-ever stroke in the general population. However, secondary or recurrent strokes are highly preventable by improving lifestyle and health-risk behaviour factors. This projects addresses the information needs and behaviour modification advice and support that people need to avoid recurrent stroke. Modifiable risk factors are high among stroke survivors and there is an evidence-practice gap to help them address these risks. Participants in this research will undertake ‘healthy recovery intervention’ with an online program that will provide interactive, accessible information and support. This project could have a major positive impact on the health and wellbeing of Australians.

Dr Mariko Carey will lead a national team of researchers on “Improving outcomes for people with depression in community settings: A cluster RCT”. Depression has a significant health and morbidity burden. General Practitioners (GPs) play an important role in the detection and management of depression. This project aims to examine the effectiveness of an intervention designed to equip GPs to provide patient-centred care. The study will expand existing knowledge of effective strategies to improve depression outcomes.

Professor David Lubans leads a local, national and international team of researchers who will explore a school-based intervention for increasing vigorous physical activity among older adolescents: the “Burn 2 Learn” cluster randomised controlled trial. Physical activity levels decline dramatically during adolescence and less than 20% of Australian adolescents are sufficiently active to accrue the associated health benefits. Increasing time demands and the pressure to perform in major school examinations drive many older adolescents to sacrifice time usually spent being active to maximise their academic performance. Schools are ideally placed to address this public health issue and this project aims to demonstrate the benefits of a scalable version of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for students’ physical, psychological and cognitive health. This novel intervention will use a variety of implementation strategies to promote participation in time-efficient HIIT that is both physically and cognitively demanding. This project has the potential to bring physical and mental health benefits to current and future Australians.

Laureate Professor Paul Foster is successfully leading three NHMRC funded projects with the aim of better understanding the treatment and causes of asthma and other respiratory disorders. Professor Foster is the Director of the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Healthy Lungs and of the Viruses, Infections/Immunity, Vaccines and Asthma research program at the Hunter Medical
Research Institute.
The three projects that Professor Foster will lead will explore:
* Understanding the role of Th22 cells in regulating respiratory immune response in health and disease
* Characterising the pro-inflammatory role of IL-36γ/IL-36R in pathogen-induced exacerbations of asthma and COPD
* Shared innate immune mechanisms underpin-steroid resistant pathogen-induced asthma exacerbations.

Professor Phil Hansbro will lead a national and International team to examine: “Elucidating the roles and mechanisms of activation of NLRP3 inflammasomes and developing therapeutic interventions for severe steroid-resistant asthma”. Severe steroid-resistant (SSR) asthma is a major clinical issue and accounts for more than 50 per cent of asthma-related healthcare costs. Quality of life of people living with this condition is impacted as this condition is underpinned by chronically-inflamed airways, hyper-secretion of mucus and impaired lung function. Inhaled corticosteroids are not effective in this form of asthma and there are no cures. This projects aims to explore how the disease develops and to progress the therapeutic development of a new inhibitor which will reduce associated morbidity and mortality of the disease.

Dr Simon Keely will lead a team exploring “Epithelial metabolism as a mediator of host-microbiome interactions in inflammatory bowel disease”. The project aims to explore how altered metabolism during intestinal inflammation contributes to chronic intestinal diseases such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Australia has one of the highest rates for IBD, conditions with high healthcare costs and low quality of life and there is an urgent need for new therapeutic interventions for these patients. Evidence suggests that the microbiota is central to the development and persistence of IBD: for this study the team will examine metabolites, used by the microbiota as nutrients, in healthy and diseased intestinal cells from IBD patients. This project will provide a detailed understanding of the metabolic and micronutrient environment of the inflamed mucosa and identify changes in the microbiota that occur during inflammation and lead to an imbalance in the gut flora.

Professor Paulette van Vliet will lead a team of researchers exploring Improving arm function after stroke using task specific training. Over 1.5 million people in the world each year have a stroke. After recovery, 85 per cent have insufficient arm movement to open a jar, do up their buttons or use a knife and fork. This project will trial task-specific, home-based training for stroke survivors for arm recovery and function with the aim of dramatically improving limb function. The results of this trial will represent a major advance in knowledge of stroke recovery. This will be one of the first arm stroke rehabilitation trial on an international level, with global impact. Findings of this study are likely to result in knowledge that can be applied to stroke recovery worldwide.

Professor Roger Smith leads a team of national researchers with the aim of “Understanding the myometrial transition at term and preterm labour to guide tocolysis.” Preterm birth is responsible for 75 per cent of neonatal mortality and substantial disability: each year, 15 million babies are born pre-term. Unfortunately there are currently no good treatments available for women who present in preterm labour. The team has postulated that for the uterus to start contacting multiple changes occur in the muscle of the uterus, explaining why current treatments that focus on individual pathways are unsuccessful. Over the next three years the group will test how multiple pathways interact in the uterus and develop methods to block the combined effect, with the goal of developing more effective treatments to prevent preterm birth.

Dr Flora Tzelepis is leading a team of researchers to conduct “A cluster randomised trial of electronic feedback, online and telephone support on multiple health risk behaviours among Technical and Further Education (TAFE) students.” Tobacco use, risky alcohol consumption, inadequate fruit and vegetable intake and physical inactivity are all modifiable risk factors of chronic disease. This study will explore the effectiveness of electronic feedback, online and telephone support on reducing these health risk behaviours in TAFE students. If proven effective, the intervention could be readily rolled out across TAFE campuses nationally to improve the health of young adults.

Professor Peter Greer will lead a team of national and International researchers to explore “Improving patient safety in radiation therapy with the Watchdog real-time treatment delivery verification system.” Radiation therapy is a recommended treatment for around 50 per cent of new cancer cases. As the technology is so complex, there are risks of errors or mistreatment. This study aims to implement and develop a system, “Watchdog”, that verifies that the patient is receiving the correct dose during radiation therapy treatment. This study could be translated into improved care for all radiation therapy treatments.

Associate Professor Luke Wolfenden will lead a team investigating “A randomised controlled trial of an online intervention to improve healthy food purchases from primary school canteens.” Dietary risk factors are the leading cause of disease burden in Australia. It is established that dietary habits formed in childhood can track into adulthood and predict future chronic disease. As schools are the key setting for improving child nutrition, this study will use online canteen ordering systems to implement healthy consumer behaviour via placement, prompts and feedback to encourage healthy choices. This study has the potential to make substantial improvements in healthy eating at school canteens and positively impact the health of the nation.

Associate Professor Wolfenden was also successful in his application for an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship to address foundational impediments to the translation of chronic disease prevention interventions in community settings.