Around the universities and research institutes

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust || doi: 10.5694/mja17.1704C3
Published online: 17 April 2017

Six University of Sydney-affiliated scholars have won $2m from $6m in new grants announced by Cancer Council NSW to make ground-breaking advancements in cancer research. Dr Ken Micklethwaite of the UoSydney and Westmead Institute was awarded $450 000 to test the impacts of genetically modified immune cells to fight cases of leukaemia. Dr Micklethwaite’s research centres on the use of a new “PiggyBac” technology to make cell and gene therapy simpler and more broadly available. Currently, the technology for making cancer-fighting immune cells is unable to introduce the genes needed to defeat cancer. The PiggyBac system has the ability to make these changes but is yet to be adapted for clinical use. Dr Micklethwaite’s team will optimise PiggyBac for use in clinical trials and develop the technology so researchers have a choice of established tools that can be used to create cancer-fighting cells. Associate Professor Greg Neely was awarded $450 000 to progress research on the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Professor Neely’s research team hopes to detect molecular “signatures” that define drug resistance and thereby allow researchers to find ways to make current and future treatments more effective. The research will be used to test combinations of drugs to either overcome cancer drug resistance or prevent resistance from occurring. Dr Elizabeth Hovey an Honorary Associate, at the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, at Sydney Medical School was awarded $186 540 to test an alternative treatment for a type of glioma brain cancer, which could be less toxic and more effective than current therapy. Dr Hovey’s work will investigate whether PCV treatment could be substituted by the less toxic drug temozolomide to treat this cancer. Dr Eva Segelova, a medical oncologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, was awarded $213 460 to conduct a multinational trial on colorectal cancer to determine whether aspirin can be used to reduce relapse and death rates. Previous research has shown that patients with colon and rectal cancer who take aspirin after being diagnosed appear to live longer than those who do not. The trial will aim to determine whether taking aspirin will improve survival rates without adding significant side effects. Associate Professor Jeffrey Holst from the Sydney Medical School and the Centenary Institute, was awarded $449 174 to complete research into manipulating cancer cells into using biological pathways that will trigger their own death. Cancer cells develop stress-response techniques to promote their survival and so researchers will hijack these responses and force the cancer cells to choose a path that will lead to their death. Professor Stephen Ackland, also from the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, was awarded $449 490 to complete a phase 2 trial testing whether statins can reduce the side effects of rectal cancer treatments. Previous studies have shown that people taking statin drugs before treatment for colorectal cancers have better treatment responses and fewer side effects during radiation.

Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin has awarded five career fellowships as part of their collaborative program Improving Health Outcomes in the Tropical North (HOT NORTH). The 3-year fellowships have been given across five themes – skin health, respiratory health, chronic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and mosquito-transmitted diseases. Dr Matthew Grigg (Menzies School of Health Research) will work on a project called “Antimicrobial resistance: epidemiology and treatment of malaria in Sabah, Malaysia: longitudinal patterns of disease, acquisition risk factors, antimalarial drug resistance, and adjunctive therapy for acute kidney injury”. Associate Professor Heidi Smith-Vaughan (Menzies School of Health Research) will work on “Respiratory health: genomic public health in Australian Indigenous communities and developing countries”. Dr Karla Canuto (James Cook University) will work on “Chronic diseases: Torres Strait healthy young women”. Dr Dagmar Meyer (James Cook University) will work on “Vector-borne and emerging infectious diseases: can mosquito excreta be used to enhance detection of Australian vector-borne diseases?” Dr Timothy Barnett (Telethon Kids Institute) will work on “Skin health: do group A streptococcus isolates causing skin infections in remote WA encode genes that correlate with disease severity, antibiotic resistance, or adverse immunological outcomes?”

Four researchers affiliated with the University of Sydney have been awarded $250 000 by MS Research Australia as part of $1.5 million in new funding to support promising new ways prevent and treat multiple sclerosis. Dr Grant Parnell of the UoS and the Westmead Institute was awarded $158 000 over 3 years to investigate how vitamin D protects against MS. A low level of vitamin D is a known risk factor for developing MS however the benefit of vitamin D in the treatment and prevention of MS is largely unknown. Dr Joshua Barton of the UoS and the Brain and Mind Centre was awarded $67 000 over 2 years to investigate new ways of detecting sub-clinical changes in the brains of MS sufferers. The current methods used by clinicians to monitor the impact of the disease on patients are insensitive and measured over long periods of time. Dr Barton aims to use the brain’s visual systems to monitor disease progression and the effectiveness of therapies for MS in real time. Associate Professor Scott Byrne was awarded $18 000 to find out how sunlight suppresses the immune system. A/Professor Byrne’s research will examine the relationship between UV light exposure, the immune system and MS. There is increasing evidence that a number of environmental factors are important in the development and course of MS, which is more prevalent in Scandinavian countries with low UV exposure. UoS PhD student Angelica Panopoulos was awarded $6000 to investigate how immune cells enter the brain and spinal cord. Typically, immune cells are blocked from entering the brain via the blood brain barrier, which is faulty in MS sufferers. The hope is her research will help develop a better understanding of whether tiny cell fragments called microparticles can breach the blood brain barrier and therefore contribute to the early stages of MS.

Professor Michael Parker has been appointed as the new Director of the University of Melbourne’s Bio 21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute. One of Australia’s leading protein structural biologists, Prof Parker will take up the role as part of a joint appointment between the University and St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research (SVI). The joint appointment will see Prof Parker take up the Bio21 Director role while also remaining the Head of SVI’s Structural Biology Unit. His academic appointment at the University of Melbourne will be as a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences. While several of the Unit’s research teams will relocate to Bio 21 in a staged process over the next few months, others will continue to be based at SVI.

Director of Clinical Haematology at Monash Health Professor Stephen Opat has been acknowledged for his significant achievements with an academic promotion at the School of Clinical Sciences at Monash Health, Monash University. Professor Opat’s research aims to improve outcomes for patients with lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, and to achieve these ends he has employed a number of strategies. As Director of the Monash Haematology Clinical Research Unit, Professor Opat has also been principal investigator in over 40 studies in lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. Another research interest of Professor Opat’s is improving the understanding of lymphoma biology to facilitate the rational application of targeted therapy. Professor Opat is President of the Haematology Society of Australia and New Zealand; Chair, Steering Committee, Lymphoma and Related Diseases Registry; and Chair, Melbourne Genomics Health Alliance Lymphoma Flagship.

Neonatalogist Arvind Sehgal has been recognised for his research with an academic promotion at Monash University. Adjunct Professor Sehgal, Department of Paediatrics, is a Neonatal Consultant at Monash Children’s Hospital. His recent research focuses on the cardiac and vascular impact of fetal growth restriction. “Using advanced ultrasound modalities, we have noted early vascular ageing in this cohort alongside mal-adaptive coupling with cardiac function,” said Professor Sehgal. “Early identification of arterial and ventricular changes would detect those premature infants at high risk for long term cardiovascular compromise, and allow early intervention and/or increased monitoring.” This research also formed the focus of Professor Sehgal’s recently completed PhD.

  • Cate Swannell



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