Scholarships awarded to advance research into heart disease and childhood infections

Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) projects that aim to better treat congenital heart disease and Strep A are among those awarded national scholarships.

Dr Michael Zhu and Dr Yara-Natalie Abo were awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Postgraduate Scholarships, worth a combined $250,000.

The scholarships, which were announced by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, aim to support outstanding health and medical graduates early in their careers and increase research capacity within Australia.

Dr Zhu's project aims to investigate the long-term outcomes of open-heart surgery on children with congenital heart defects (abnormalities in the heart that are present from birth).   

"Congenital heart defects affect over 2,400 children in Australia each year," Dr Zhu said. "Between 5-7 per cent of these patients will have an abnormal aortic valve (an important heart valve that helps blood from the heart to flow in the correct direction to the rest of the body) and some of these children will need open-heart surgery in order to survive."

Although surgery is often successful, affected children will need multiple heart operations throughout their life and may face heart complications and premature death.

Dr Zhu said this study would investigate the long-term outcomes of aortic valve surgery in children and aim to identify strategies to minimise complications and reoperation and maximise survival.

Dr Abo and the MCRI team aim to advance the development of a vaccine for Strep A, a common bacterial infection that affects more than 750 million children and causes over 500,000 deaths annually.

"Strep A is bacterium often found in the throat and on the skin, causing infections like sore throat (Strep throat) and skin infections, which are common in school-aged children," Dr Abo said.

"Currently there is no vaccine available to prevent Strep A."

Dr Abo will test Strep A vaccines in a randomised human challenge trial, giving the vaccine or a placebo to healthy adult participants in a controlled environment. They will have Strep A painted on their throats and carefully monitored to see if they develop strep throat.

She said she hoped that a Strep A vaccine would prevent infections and deaths in children.

These projects are supported by additional funding from the National Heart Foundation of Australia through their Heart Foundation Scholarship program.