UON awarded over $5.6 million in NHMRC funding

Thursday, 27 October 2016

The University of Newcastle (UON) is delighted to announce the following successful researchers in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council funding. With the help of this funding, our researchers aim to tackle a range of health-related issues that impact our communities.

UON was awarded $5, 641, 494 million in the October 2016 round of NHMRC funding for important health and medical research.

Research Fellowships
A five-year NHMRC Research Fellowship supports researchers to enable them to work full-time in health and medical research.

A Research Fellowship has been awarded to Associate Professor Mark Baker, an international leader in sperm-cell proteomics. Dr Baker is highly recognised in the field of fertility research: with a strong research focus on understanding and overcoming male infertility. Dr Baker is seeking to unlock the causes of this very common problem by studying the structure and function of sperm proteomes (the sets of proteins expressed by genomes).
His leadership on protein biomarkers to diagnose male infertility has seen IVF-company Fertility First work with his group in a clinical setting.

With around one in 15 men thought to be infertile, the study of male fertility (andrology) is complex as there are two main causes: no sperm, or extremely poor motility (poor swimmers). However, diagnosing issues with male fertility is complex, at the moment only around 30 per cent of male infertility cases are diagnosed. Dr Baker aims for a success rate to diagnose and prognose 80 to 90 per cent of male infertility cases.

Through the University of Newcastle, Mark is applying for a patent and will then form a start-up company in this area. This will be a world-wide first to use biomarkers for male infertility.

Practitioner Fellowships
These five year, part-time fellowships allow clinicians, public health or health service professionals to engage in research related to their professional activities.

Professor Luke Wolfenden has been awarded a Practitioner Fellowship. Professor Wolfenden aims to generate new knowledge to address impediments to the translation of chronic disease prevention research. As a health promotion practitioner, Luke says that there’s a substantial failure of research to be translated into practice; so he wants to explore ways to successfully help schools and communities to adopt health programs.

Working in partnership with researchers and end-user organises, Luke’s rigorous research has the intention of being able to address immediate policy/practice needs. His research also aims to facilitate knowledge exchange and to be immediately available to support decision-making.

Professor Wolfenden’s research has informed tobacco control policy of WHO Member States and international clinical practice guidelines. His nutritional research has informed NSW government menu labelling and health canteen policy revisions and a physical activity program trialled in secondary students has been adopted as a Premier’s priority for state-wide dissemination.

Early Career Fellowships
NHMRC Early Career Fellowships provide the opportunity for Australian researchers to work on research projects in health and medical research in Australia or overseas. The fellowships are awarded on the basis of the research being considered of major importance in its field and of benefit to Australian Health.

UON was successfully awarded five Early Career Fellowships to help early career researchers explore innovative new topics to benefit public health.

Dr Emma Beckett is a molecular nutritionist who aims to explore the complex interactions that exist between the way we taste food (phenotype), genetic variance in taste receptors (genotype) and the bacteria that live in our guts (the gastrointestinal microbiome). She aims to determine how these interactions may promote or supress disease processes, such as oncogenic (causing development of cancerous tumours) processes in the gastrointestinal tract.
Emma is interested in gene-nutrient interactions; how genes influence the way we taste and detect food– but also how the food you eat changes the way your genes are expressed. Taste receptors are not just expressed in the mouth, but also throughout the body, including in the intestines, allowing complex detection of food components and bacterial metabolites. Emma’s work explores the complex interactions between diet, genetics and epigenetics and hopes that a better understanding of these interactions could lead to a better understanding of risk for, and treatment of, diet-related diseases.

Dr Chantal Donovan is a postdoctoral researcher who will be working with Professor Phil Hansbro at the Hunter Medical Research Institute. Lung diseases (emphysema, severe asthma and pulmonary fibrosis) are major burdens on the Australian community and economy. Patients experience severe breathlessness seriously impacting quality of life and frequently leading to death. The team will assess the potential of a new target (IL-33), & therapy (anti-IL-33) in suppressing remodelling in experimental models and human tissues. This may lead to a new treatment to reverse and/or prevent lung diseases.
Working under the direct mentorship of Professor Hansbro, and being part of a world-class group of researchers will foster Chantal’s career development to be an internationally-recognised respiratory researcher at the world-leading HMRI.

Dr Andrew Gardner is a research clinician with expertise in neuropsychology and neurotrauma. For the past 10 years, Dr Gardner has focussed his research on sports concussion. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is increasingly recognised as a risk factor for dementia and represents one of the strongest environmental risk factors. It has now been well established that athletes of a number of collision sports are exposed to a considerable number of blows to the head during their careers.
If sports concussion, which is the mildest form of TBI on the severity spectrum, is associated with an increased risk for accelerated ageing and the development of dementia, then this finding would presumably have implications for more severe forms of TBI. This notion is supported in the current TBI literature.
Andrew aims to systematically evaluate the association between a single, and repetitive mild TBI and neurodegenerative disease in retired collision sports athletes by using advanced research methods to rigorously study the issue.

Mr Hopin Lee aims to translate evidence into practice to produce more efficient health services. The clinical focus of this research is in obesity, smoking and musculoskeletal pain – some of Australia’s key health priority areas.
This research agenda brings together the world’s leading experts in clinical trials and implementation science. Hopin will be mentored by Professor Sallie Lamb -  co-director of Oxford Clinical Trials Research Unit at the University of Oxford and Professor John Wiggers, Director of the Hunter New England Population Health Unit and Senior Policy Advisor for the NSW Ministry of Health. While at Oxford, Hopin will use data from large, pragmatic clinical trials to investigate underlying treatment mechanisms for musculoskeletal pain conditions. Hopin will also develop expertise to evaluate mechanisms of service delivery and implementation.

Upon returning to Newcastle, Hopin will work with Professor Wiggers to translate the knowledge and methodologies developed in Oxford to inform optimal delivery and efficient implementation of health services across the Hunter New England health district. This fellowship has promising potential to have health impacts from local to international levels.

Dr Jessie Sutherland is extremely passionate about medical research and education with a particular focus in the field of reproductive biology and infertility. She believes that research transparency and public education is the most beneficial way towards achieving scientific discoveries that will directly impact the health and well-being of our community. The goal of her fellowship is to uncover and understand the crucial role of early ovary development in determining a woman’s future fertility.

Her research program will introduce a number of cutting edge techniques, to help better understand female reproductive biology, using some of the specialised equipment established here at UON and HMRI. These include single cell isolation from ovarian tissue sections with the aid of laser capture microscopy, and 3D histology of the ovary utilising the whole tissue clearing and light-sheet microscopy unit at HMRI.

This research will be undertaken within the School of Biomedical Science & Pharmacy and in affiliation with the Priority Research Centre for Reproductive Science and the HMRI Pregnancy & Reproduction Program - abundant with exceptional mentors and researchers, who have been instrumental to her career development and fellowship success. Jessie also hopes to continue lecturing into the Biomedical Science degree which has been an unrivalled source of engaged and talented research students.

In addition, a consortium of Australian Investigators including Professor Darryl Knight, Head of School of Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacy at the University of Newcastle and Investigator with the Priority Research Centre for Healthy Lungs at the Hunter Medical Research Institute, has been awarded $2.5 million by the NHMRC to support a Centre for Research Excellence on pulmonary fibrosis.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a group of diseases that are characterised by the build-up of scar tissue in the lungs, which severely reduces lung function and as a consequence negatively impacts on a patients’ wellbeing and normal day to day living.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) is the most common and devastating of all the lung fibrosis disorders and has a median survival for newly diagnosed patients of only 2-5 years.

Professor Knight said “the Centre for Research Excellence in Pulmonary fibrosis brings together a team of world leading scientists and clinicians from across Australia and provides them with a unique opportunity to comprehensively map the prevalence of the disease in Australia, identify mechanisms and ways of targeting treatment earlier, as well as provide the much needed support for patients and the training of future research fellows”.

The Centre for Research Excellence is led by Associate Professor Tamera Corte from the University of Sydney and is supported by existing collaborative clinical and research platforms; The Australian Pulmonary Fibrosis Consortium, the Australian IPF registry, the IPF Blood Biobank and Pulmonary Fibrosis lung tissue bank.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.