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Eight research projects secure federal grants

Institute News
Tuesday, September 14, 2021 - 10:52am

Improving concussion recovery, reducing the food allergy epidemic and unlocking the regenerative potential of the newborn heart are among the latest Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) projects to secure federal funding.

Eight projects have been awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Grants, announced today by the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Professor Vicki Anderson received a grant for her study, which aims to improve child concussion outcomes by improving diagnostic precision and effective treatment.

“Concussion accounts for more than 95 per cent of all traumatic brain injuries, with 20 per cent of all children sustaining a concussive injury before the age 10. Due to the immaturity of the developing brain, children and adolescents are uniquely vulnerable, even to mild injury, and about 30 per cent have a slow and incomplete recovery,” Professor Anderson said.

“This project will generate new knowledge to close the loop between accurately detecting children at risk for delayed recovery and providing effective, personalised care for children with concussion.” 

Associate Professor Enzo Porrello secured funding for his study which aims to unlock the regenerative potential of the newborn heart for cardiac repair in children and adults with heart failure.

“In contrast to the extremely limited regenerative capacity of the adult heart, we have discovered that the newborn heart retains a robust capacity for regeneration for a short period after birth, which indicates heart regeneration could be possible,” he said.

Associate Professor Porrello said his research would help address the urgent need for new therapies that could restore function to the failing heart by regenerating damaged tissue. 

After developing a controlled human infection model for Strep A, Professor Andrew Steer and Dr Joshua Osowicki received funding to test the efficacy of two candidate vaccines.

“Strep A is one of the five leading causes of global infection-related deaths, causing over 500,000 deaths each year, and is a high priority bacterial infection for Australia and the Pacific,” Dr Osowicki said.

“We have developed the only current Strep A human challenge model, ready to be used as a platform to evaluate new vaccine candidates and therapeutics.”

Professor Steer’s grant will also help to scale up mass drug administration trials for the control of scabies and its complications, including rheumatic heart disease, in the Pacific Islands.

Associate Professor David Tingay received a grant for his research into protecting preterm lungs and improving respiratory outcomes from birth by developing new breathing interventions.

“Protecting the preterm lung must begin at birth. Our program aims to discover the mechanisms that cause preterm lung injury at birth, how lung injury progresses and to develop strategies to apply to the right baby at the right time to prevent injury,” he said. 

Associate Professor Tingay said the project would build on the transformational discoveries made during the POLAR Trial, the largest ever trial of a delivery room preterm respiratory strategy.

Associate Professor Kirsten Perrett received funding to test new strategies to prevent and treat food allergies, specifically targeting the developing immune system.

“Australia has the highest reported rate of food allergy in the world, affecting 10 per cent of infants,” she said. Management relies on strict allergen avoidance yet despite vigilance, accidental ingestion is common, causing frequent, often life-threatening reactions and reduced quality of life. The aim of this research is for no child to have to go to school with food allergy.”

Dr Margarita Moreno-Betancur’s project will tackle “big data” problems in longitudinal studies by developing new statistical methods for analysing pathways to disease.

“Existing tools simply do not work in data-intensive studies such as those using large-scale biomarker datasets or real-time measurements in clinical care,” she said. “I’m aiming to address this critical gap through an integrated research program that will develop solutions, including dissemination to health researchers, as well as advanced capacity in the critical discipline of biostatistics.” 

Dr Hamish Graham was awarded a grant for his project to help treat hypoxaemia, low blood oxygen level, a life-threatening complication of pneumonia and prematurity.

“Hypoxaemia affects about 36 million people in low- and middle-income countries annually, and many of these patients currently lack access to oxygen therapy, resulting in more than a million preventable deaths every year,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequities in oxygen access.”

Dr Graham said the research sought to develop and test an innovative automated oxygen device for preterm babies, integrate this into a safe oxygen package and evaluate the role and effectiveness of pulse oximetry and oxygen in pre-hospital settings.