Multi Generation Family Sitting On Steps in Front Of House

Eight Murdoch Children’s Research Institute-led projects aiming to improve child health outcomes, from reducing the food allergy burden, breaking the cycle of family violence to boosting vaccine uptake, have received federal funding.

Professors Stephanie Brown, Katherine Lee, Mimi Tang, Jeanie Cheong, Franz Babl, and Ravi Savarirayan, and Doctors Graham Gee and Jessica Kaufman secured National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator grants, worth over $13.7 million collectively.  

Professor Stephanie Brown was allocated a $2.38 million grant for her project (2018144), which aims to drive change in the health sector and improve outcomes for women and children affected by intergenerational trauma and family violence, particularly in Aboriginal and refugee communities.

“Intergenerational trauma and family violence are major public health issues with an enormous global burden on women, children, families, communities and health systems,” she said. Despite this, Australia has not yet developed effective public health approaches to these serious problems.”

Professor Brown will leverage the Stronger Futures CRE, which works with Aboriginal and refugee communities to break cycles of trauma, family violence and inequity, to co-design studies that would help embed culturally safe, trauma-informed approaches into practice.

Professor Katherine Lee received $2.2 million for her project (2017498), which will establish and lead a hub of national and international biostatistical experts to advance knowledge and expertise in a new clinical trial design that could lead to more efficient research and better child health outcomes.

“Adaptive Platform Trials (APTs), which are more flexible than traditional randomised controlled trials and enable information to be generated faster, are revolutionising how trials are conducted,” she said. However, expert knowledge and experience of these trial designs are currently lacking within Australia.”

Professor Lee will provide training to increase statistical capacity and clinical researcher knowledge of these novel trial methods, which would increase the efficiency of these types of trials across Australia and provide effective evidence-based medicine to children.

Professor Mimi Tang’s $1.7 million project (2017438) aims to use innovative interventions to reduce the burden of food allergy, which affects 10 per cent of babies and 8 per cent of children.

“Management of food allergy relies on allergen avoidance, which is burdensome and frequently fails,” she said. The lifestyle restrictions of avoidance and unpredictability of reactions cause severely reduced quality of life for allergic children and their families. 

Building on her pioneering research, Professor Tang will evaluate new treatments that induce food allergy remission, investigate immune mechanisms underpinning lasting remission and develop tools that improve food allergy management. 

Professor Jeanie Cheong, who leads the Centre of Research Excellence in Newborn Medicine, was awarded a $2.5 million grant (2016390) to optimise lifelong health and development for extremely preterm infants.   

“In Australia, 1200 babies are born extremely preterm (less than 28 weeks) per year, and this carries lifelong implications for their health and well-being,” she said. Although advances in care have led to increased survival, long-term complications are high and major disability and illness affect up to one in three survivors, which costs $700 million per year to the Australian healthcare system.”

Professor Cheong said her research program would advance our understanding of extremely preterm birth, improve the ability to accurately predict those at highest risk and ensure better care for these vulnerable children and their families.

Professor Franz Babl, who leads the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Paediatric Emergency Medicine, was awarded $2.25 million for a project (2017605) to improve emergency department care for children with sepsis, a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection which can lead to tissue damage, organ failure and death. 

“Using the PREDICT research network, we will conduct a multi-centre observational study and randomised controlled trial at 13 sites in Australia and New Zealand, which will allow clinicians to identify children at risk of sepsis before they become critically ill and need intensive care,” he said. 

Professor Babl said he hoped new evidence from these studies would be embedded into guidelines and policy development to improve sepsis outcomes for children. 

Professor Ravi Savarirayan received a $2.6 million grant (2018081) to develop and test the efficacy of new therapies for skeletal dysplasia (common genetic musculoskeletal disorders caused by impaired development and growth of the human skeleton) to improve the lives of patients with these conditions.

“Children with skeletal dysplasia have abnormal development of bones, joints and cartilage, and they experience various medical complications, functional limitations and psychosocial challenges across their lifespan,” he said. Unfortunately, treatment options are currently limited, with poor outcomes.”

Professor Savarirayan will advance his ground-breaking research on the drug vosoritide, which addresses the underlying cause of achondroplasia (the most common type of short-limbed dwarfism) and another promising medication, to develop new treatments that improve health and decrease the need for surgery in these children.

Dr Graham Gee’s project (2018465), which secured $1.56 million, aims to support the healing and recovery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors of child sexual abuse and improve practices and service responses to better meet their needs.

“Child sexual abuse and its effects on individuals, families and communities is a human rights and global health issue that affects all nations and cultures,” Dr Gee said. However, a national call for action through the first national strategy and associated action plan to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse only commenced in late 2021, so there is insufficient research focusing on this issue.”

To address this gap, Dr Gee will work with a coalition of Victorian Aboriginal services to improve the quality of practice, training, education and support mechanisms, to better respond to the needs of survivors. 

Dr Jessica Kaufman’s $655,000 project (2017417) will address misinformation regarding vaccines, improve confidence and increase uptake for both routine and COVID-19 vaccines in Australia and the Asia Pacific Region.

“Misinformation and changing recommendations have increased vaccine hesitancy in Australia and globally, particularly among culturally and linguistically diverse communities and those with low health literacy,” Dr Kaufman said. Evidence-based communication and community engagement strategies are urgently needed to build vaccine confidence and demand.” 

Dr Kaufman will work with local stakeholders to assess barriers to vaccination, then provide data, tools and community capacity that will close these gaps and reduce vaccine-preventable disease and deaths.

*The content of this communication is the sole responsibility of Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and does not reflect the views of the NHMRC. Investigator grant numbers are listed above.