NHMRC awards $12.4 million to 14 Newcastle projects

Wednesday, 12 December 2018


The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has awarded the University of Newcastle more than $12.4 million to support 14 projects that are aiming to solve some of the world’s most critical health problems and improve the lives of millions of Australians.

NHMRC 2018 Project grants

The University’s inaugural Women in STEMM Chair, Professor Billie Bonevski, received the largest grant, $1.8 million in funding to  run a trial of vaporised nicotine products for smoking cessation, targeting people who have been discharged from drug and alcohol residential withdrawal services.

Four of the projects will investigate pregnancy or birth-related health issues. Among them, Dr Yogavijayan Kandasamy, who received $1.5 million in funding, will study the relationship between maternal health and infant kidney development and function; while Dr Kirsty Pringle was awarded $578,000 to investigate the inadequate development of the placenta and its role in pre-eclampsia.

Professor Jonathan Hirst received $892,000 to examine the effectiveness of replacing hormones in preterm babies to improve their health outcomes later in life; and Dr Jonathan Paul received $461,000 to explore a dual action therapy delivered through the uterus to prevent preterm birth.

Dr Kandasmy, Dr Pringle, Professor Hirst and Dr Paul research in conjunction with the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s Pregnancy and Reproduction program.

Other recipients of NHMRC funding include Laureate Professor Paul Foster and Dr Hock Tay who were awarded $1.2 million to understand how the immune system is involved in regulating asthma attacks and to develop better treatments; and Professor Adam McCluskey, who received $1.5 million to investigate a method to reverse immunotherapy resistance in head and neck cancer.

Dr Geoffry De Iuliis was awarded $425,000 to determine the biological effects of radio frequency electromagnetic energy, emitted from mobile phones, on sperm.

University of Newcastle Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), Professor Kevin Hall, said this year’s outcome demonstrated the capacity of the University’s researchers across all stages of their careers.

“Despite an increasingly competitive environment, our researchers have once again been extremely successful in securing funding for projects that will improve medical practice and make a real difference to the health and wellbeing of Australians,” Professor Hall said.

“It is also wonderful to see so many of our early and mid-career academics helping to shape the country’s medical agenda by developing new solutions for significant health challenges that affect millions of individuals.”

New HMRI* Director Professor Tom Walley said the funding success showed the power of leveraging for donors who had seed-funded and supported many of the successful projects.

“It highlights the strong community commitment to our leading programs in many areas,” Professor Walley said. “It’s also pleasing to see that our translational focus is reflected in the results.”

The full University of Newcastle list of NHMRC grant recipients include:

Associate Professor Christopher Dayas $751,653

A novel pathways linking stress with mood disorders

Mood disorders are a socially debilitating group of diseases including anxiety and depression, together constituting the most common mental health conditions suffered by Australians. Associate Professor Dayas and his team have identified a novel brain circuit that links emotional stress with mood disorders. This project seeks to now understand how best to manipulate this circuit to stabilise mood disorders such as depression, social withdrawal and anxiety.

Professor Lee Smith - $507,127

The importance of classical versus backdoor androgen production pathways in masculinisation, fertility and lifelong male health

Male development, fertility, and lifelong health are fundamentally supported by testicular androgens, which are hormones that are crucial to male sexual and reproductive function. For decades, the production of androgens has thought to have been fully understood, however recent research has identified a second 'backdoor' pathway playing a key role in male development. This project will investigate how each pathway promotes correct male development and how this new knowledge can be applied to support lifelong male health.

Dr Malcolm Starkey $501,022

Understanding how group 2 innate lymphoid cells in early life regulate postnatal lung development and susceptibility to chronic respiratory diseases

Impaired lung growth that results from respiratory infections in early life negatively impacts on respiratory health and may lead to the development of asthma and emphysema. The identification and exploitation of the factors that promote normal healthy lung development may lead to new strategies to prevent and treat respiratory diseases. Dr Starkey and his team have identified a new type of cell that they think are critical for lung development. This may have substantial health and economic benefits in the future.

Professor Billie Bonevski $1,833,513

A trial of vaporised nicotine products for smoking cessation following discharge from drug and alcohol residential withdrawal services

This study will test whether vaporised nicotine products (VNPs) help people with drug and alcohol issues to quit smoking. People in treatment for other substance use experience great difficulty quitting tobacco smoking, and as a result, tobacco smoking rates are unacceptably high amongst this group. Findings from this project will provide robust and policy relevant evidence of the safety and effectiveness of a new approach to smoking cessation support to a high-risk group.

Dr Kirsty Pringle $578,528

Factors regulating maternal levels of soluble (pro)renin receptor and its role in the pathogenesis of preeclampsia

Preeclampsia affects 3-5 per cent of all pregnancies and is associated with significant maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality. The pathophysiology of preeclampsia can be attributed to inadequate development of the placenta. This project builds on the team’s recent data to investigate the role of the multi-functional membrane bound and soluble prorenin receptor (s(P)RR), in placentation, and the functional significance of the high levels of s(P)RR in the maternal circulation in women with preeclampsia.

Professor Brett Nixon - $572,394

Targeted disruption of lipoxygenase enzymes to prevent oxidative stress-mediated pathologies in the male germline

Infertility has become a critical health burden, with an estimated 80 million individuals experiencing the weight of this disease globally. Currently, there are few molecular tools available for the accurate diagnosis of male infertility and no successful preventative strategies, making defective sperm function the largest single, defined cause of human infertility. This project will explore the application of novel therapeutic strategies to mitigate the growing health burden of male infertility and in doing so, answer the long-standing call for evidence based medicine in andrological practice.

Professor Philip Hansbro $886,504

Development of new therapies for COPD

Emphysema is a major cause of illness and death and there are no good treatments. It is caused by smoking that induces lung inflammation and disease. Cellular respiration can become defective causing oxidative stress and inflammation and it is thought that these may drive emphysema. The team has developed new treatments that restore cell respiration and stop oxidative stress. The project will assess altered respiration and oxidative stress in emphysema and stop and/or reverse these changes with its new therapies.

Professor Xu Dong Zhang $702,521

Role of lncRNA glycoLINC in coordinating the Warburg effect and serine metabolism

Compared to normal cells, cancer cells use a different mixture of fuels to sustain high rates of growth. A better understanding of cancer metabolism will uncover vulnerabilities that can be exploited in the clinic. The team has discovered a molecular mechanism that coordinates two key metabolic processes essential for cancer cell survival. The project involves colon cancer but because this mechanism is present in many other cancer types the team anticipates broad significance of its work.

Laureate Professor Paul Foster $1,266,560

Modelling the role of innate immune cells in exacerbation of asthma

Infections or allergens exacerbate asthma and are often poorly responsive to therapy. The specific factors inducing episodes remain largely unknown but are linked to activation of innate immunity. Professor Foster and his team found that cytokine IL-36 is linked to activation and expansion of innate lymphoid cells, which may regulate exacerbations. The project will further define involvement of these cells in the mechanism underlying exacerbation providing novel insights into new treatments.

Professor Adam McCluskey $1,493,752

Dynamin modulators for reversing immunotherapy resistance in head and neck cancer

Professor McCluskey and his team have spent more than 20 years developing specific dynamin inhibitors and have now identified a single novel class of dynamin inhibitors that will be rapidly developed as the primary chemical series for combination therapy with cetuximab. In this project, the team proposes to advance its many years of work to develop this series of dynamin inhibitors to a pre-clinical lead candidate suitable for clinical development.

Dr Yogavijayan Kandasamy $1,552,842

The relationship between maternal health and infant renal development and function

Kidney disease is a major contributor to the life expectancy disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Using non-invasive methods, this study will assess the impact of maternal kidney size, diabetes, alcohol, nutrition and smoking on a baby's kidney growth.

Dr Geoffry De Iuliis $425,394

Utilising the male germline to define our understanding of the biological effects of radio frequency electromagnetic energy:

Mobile phones have become an integral part of people’s lives. They rely on radiofrequency electromagnetic energy to communicate information. Despite the ever-growing exposure of the population to this form of energy, the potential effects on biological systems have not been resolved and are currently under active debate. The team will exploit the unique properties of the sperm cell as a powerful model with which to improve understanding of the effects of RF-EME on biology.

Dr Jonathan Paul $461,473

Uterine-targeted delivery of dual action therapy for preventing preterm birth

Progesterone is currently a leading therapy for preventing preterm birth. Unfortunately, many women are insensitive to the relaxatory effects of progesterone. Dr Paul and his team discovered a dual-action agent that maintains uterine progesterone receptor expression in a state that is consistent with progesterone sensitivity; and directly inhibits uterine contractions. This agent has potential to increase the percentage of women who respond to progesterone, while exerting 'dual action' as a tocolytic.

Professor Jonathan Hirst $892,047

Replacement therapies for improving outcomes following preterm birth

Premature birth is a major and growing health problem and can lead to serious behavioural and cognitive disorders in later life. Even moderately prematurely born children are at increased risk of developing these disorders. Professor Hirst and his team propose that premature loss of support from growth promoting steroid hormones from the placenta lead to suboptimal development. This project will examine the effectiveness of replacing these hormones in prematurely born neonates for improving outcomes in childhood.

* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.