HMRI celebrates 20 years of improving health outcomes

Wednesday, 14 March 2018


The University of Newcastle congratulates the Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) as it celebrates its 20th anniversary today, marking two decades of research breakthroughs and extensive community engagement.

HMRI building

Established in 1998 to deliver leading health research and benefits to the Hunter region and beyond, HMRI has grown into a world-class institute of over 1700 medical researchers, students and staff working to address serious illnesses.

Working in partnership with the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Health, HMRI has provided leading researchers and specialists with state-of-the-art medical facilities to improve care for people with existing conditions and find new ways to prevent chronic disease.

HMRI Innovations

With an acute stroke occurring every 10 minutes in Australia, a revolutionary detection device called the Strokefinder MD100 helmet is being trialled for the first time in critical response settings.

The helmet is compact, portable and affordable, enabling rapid deployment in Emergency Departments and ambulances.

The patient’s head rests on the cushion-sized base and is sequentially scanned by antenna pads emitting low-energy microwaves similar to that of mobile phones – these pulses scatter in brain matter, detecting the type and location of the stroke.

Neuroscience researchers and physicians from the Hunter, along with Sweden’s Medfield Diagnostics, are exploring the potential for stroke therapies to be administered as soon as possible – possibly even pre-hospital by paramedics connected via advanced telehealth.

Viralytics

In what is shaping to be one of the biggest biotech sales in Australian history, a virotherapy firm co-founded by the University of Newcastle (UON) and lead researcher Associate Professor Darren Shafren is being aquired for $502 million by pharmaceutical giant Merck.

Viralytics, as the company is known, has an experimental immunotherapy compound called Cavatak that uses the common cold virus to infect and kill cancer cells.

It culminates more than 20 years of development by Associate Professor Shafren, supported since inception by HMRI and Newcastle Innovation, the UON’s tech transfer arm. The Greater Building Society (now Bank) supported the venture for 10 years, starting in 1999 with just $25,000 in seed-funding.

Bioscientific research continues to be performed at the University of Newcastle and HMRI Building, although Viralytics is now publicly listed and financially independent of HMRI.

“The basic premise of Cavatak is to cause cancer cells to rupture and die, while also stimulating a wider immune system response in the body,” Associate Professor Shafren said.

“Under this acquisition, Cavatak will be trialled with Merck’s immunotherapy drug Keytruda on melanoma, prostate, lung and bladder cancers and we’re eager to see those results.”

Virtual Biobank

Last month, the UON and HMRI announced the the world’s first virtual platform to host 3D copies of human cancer tissues, revolutionising the way researchers access critical information needed to advance cancer treatment.

The Virtual Biobank will digitise and accelerate the process of accessing vital tissue samples donated by patients, which up until now could only be requested through physical biobanks.

Chief investigators Dr Jamie Flynn, Dr Antony Martin and Dr William Palmer developed the technology as an open resource to speed up and enhance medical research activities. It uses a bespoke laser ‘lightsheet’ microscope called the Clarity, which the three researchers built by hand two years ago.

“We’ve taken a tiny sample from tumour biopsies stored at the Hunter Cancer Biobank in the HMRI Building and converted them into a virtual copy, enabling anyone around the world with an internet connection to carry out research from their computers or easily request access to the physical sample they need,” Dr Flynn said.

Artificial Pancreas

Meanwhile, work is continuing on an ‘artificial pancreas’ being jointly developed by UON engineers and HMRI diabetes researchers.

The system comprises a blood glucose sensor and an insulin infusion pump that operate continuously on a closed loop, linking via bluetooth to a smartphone-based management system.

The secret is an intelligent algorithm created by the Research Centre for Complex Dynamic Systems and Control to calculate and deliver precise insulin dosage.

Associate Professor Bruce King, a paediatric endocrinologist at John Hunter Children’s Hospital, says the artificial pancreas will help eliminate the guesswork from diabetes management.

“Children and their parents currently have to calculate how many carbohydrates are in a meal and check the blood glucose level every time they eat to work out insulin dose, but this device will do it for them.

“That means fewer needles, fewer blood tests and more accurate results.”