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Autumn Edition - March 2017

Autumn Edition - March 2017

Kathryn North profile photoThe 30th Anniversary year of the Institute has been a wonderful opportunity to reflect on and celebrate our history. Since the establishment of the Institute in 1986, we have grown from a small team working in a Royal Children’s Hospital laboratory to an Institute staffed by over 2,000 people.

Today we have our eye firmly on the future – our goal is prevention rather than cure and we are pushing boundaries by bringing health and medicine to the digital age. I am proud to be leading the top child health research Institute in Australia, but prouder still that we are positively impacting the lives of children and families every single day, through our life saving research.

With your continued assistance we can achieve a healthier future for children everywhere.

Kind regards,

Professor Kathryn North AM MD FRACP

Rupert Murdoch visits MCRI for 30th year

We were delighted to host a very special 30th Anniversary lunch at the Institute in early February. Guests included past and present Board members, Institute leaders and long standing donors and supporters. The event provided a marvellous opportunity to celebrate past successes and to articulate the future direction of medical research at MCRI. Mr Rupert Murdoch honoured his late mother’s legacy by describing her lifelong commitment to child health and his view that there is nothing more important than the health and well being of future generations.

‘Gene for speed’ linked to DMD

Almost two decades ago, Professor Kathryn North discovered the ‘gene for speed’, ACTN3, while researching Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). The genetic variant occurring normally in more than 1.5 billion people worldwide is essential for sprinters – the protein is found in skeletal muscle – but is usually missing in endurance athletes.

After nearly twenty years of ongoing research, the role of ACTN3 in DMD has become clearer. Prof North and researchers Dr Marshall Hogarth and Dr Peter Houweling have discovered ACTN3 influences disease severity in DMD, which affects around one in 3,500 boys.

DMD is a genetic disorder characterised by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness, caused by a lack of the protein, dystrophin in boys with the condition. DMD is usually diagnosed at preschool age and muscle weakness can progress rapidly. Without treatment, DMD patients lose their ability to walk between 8 to 14 years, and can die in their 20s due to respiratory failure.

MCRI researchers have successfully shown a link between the gene, alpha-actinin-3 (ACTN3), and the severity of muscle weakness and rate of disease progression of DMD.

As a result of these findings, testing for the ACTN3 gene will likely become part of a more personalised and targeted approach for the treatment of DMD.

“Understanding the role ACTN3 plays in the severity and nature of individual cases of DMD will guide the selection of effective interventions for patients, potentially aiding the generation of new treatments to improve muscle metabolism, bulk and strength,” Prof North said.

The research was published in Nature Communications.

3D printer for kidney research

MCRI’s world-leading kidney research is about to move into another dimension with 3D bioprinting technology to be used to develop more accurate kidneys.

The Institute will receive a 3D bioprinter from Organovo Holdings, a three-dimensional biology company focused on delivering scientific and medical breakthroughs.

The collaboration has been made possible by a generous gift from the Methuselah Foundation as part of its ongoing University 3D Bioprinter Program.

The 3D bioprinter will advance Professor Melissa Little’s groundbreaking research transforming stem cells into kidney tissue.

“Using Organovo’s bioprinter – the first in the southern hemisphere - will give us the opportunity to bioprint these cells into a more accurate model of the kidney,” said Professor Melissa Little, Theme Director of Cell Biology at MCRI.

“While initially important for modelling disease and screening drugs, we hope that this is also the first step towards regenerative medicine for kidney disease.” 

Meanwhile, Prof Little has been named the new head of Stem Cells Australia (SCA) by the University of Melbourne. SCA is a national alliance of more than 120 experts from Australian universities and research institutes seeking to develop innovative ways to harness the potential of stem cells. 

Professor Little’s cutting-edge research growing mini-kidneys in a dish from stem cells could lead to new treatments for kidney disease, a better way to test new drugs or even bioengineer kidneys for transplant.

New vaccines saves lives of children in Fiji

MCRI researchers have ensured a healthier future for Fijian children following the introduction of three new vaccines to tackle pneumonia, diarrhoea and cervical cancer.

The vaccines, introduced with the assistance of MCRI and the Australian government, have had a significant impact on reducing these life-threatening diseases in Fiji.

The pneumococcal immunisation targets pneumonia, severe blood infections (sepsis) and infection in the brain (meningitis). The rotavirus vaccine prevents life-threatening diarrhoea in children and the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV) given to young girls protects against cervical cancer.

The vaccination program run by the Fiji Ministry of Health achieved more than 90 per cent coverage of the child population.

An MCRI analysis of the program found hospital admissions for pneumonia in children under five almost halved from about 1000 to 500 each year, while those for meningitis and invasive pneumoccal disease also dropped. 

Carriage of the disease-causing germ pneumococcal declined in all age groups. This should reduce diseases from these germs and mean fewer children die or suffer brain damage and disability, which is common in children who survive meningitis.

There were nearly 900 hospital admissions for diarrhoea in children under five each year before the rotavirus immunisation was available. Thirty-nine per cent of these were caused by rotavirus.

MCRI Associate Professor Fiona Russell said rotavirus diarrhoea admissions declined by 70 per cent in children of all ages under five years old after the vaccine introduction.

She said the vaccines have resulted in healthier Fijian children. “Fewer children getting sick results in improved educational outcomes and improved income generation for parents needing to spend less time caring for sick or disabled children.”

TV and video games link to emotional and behavioural problems among young boys

Spending too long in front of the TV and playing video games has been linked to emotional and behavioural problems in primary school boys.

Researchers led by Dr Lisa Mundy found boys aged eight to nine who played video games or watched TV for about two hours a day every week were more likely to have behavioural, emotional, hyperactivity and inattention problems.

However, girls of this age were not affected in the same way and there was no clear link between computer use and emotional and behavioural issues.

Researchers noted that while electronic media use may have many positive outcomes, including as a tool for emotional regulation, different media may have different effects on the developing male and female brain. This is in part due to the way boys and girls consume and use media, even from a young age.

“It may be that the electronic media causes emotional and behavioural problems – or it may be that children with these problems spend more time using electronic media,” Dr Mundy said.

“What’s important to note is how the nature of the media affects the experience,” she adds. “We know that at this age, playing video games tends to be a solitary experience, whereas watching TV is more likely to occur with the family.”

The research used the first wave of data gathered through the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS), a unique cohort designed to track the health and social adjustment of children as they pass through puberty.

Researchers hope the findings will lead to the development of interventions to improve the health of children and adolescents.

Purchase your own MCRI Brilliance Rose

Internationally-renowned rose breeder Matthias Meilland visited Australia in late 2016 to showcase a rose designed by his famous family exclusively for the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

The Brilliance Rose, designed by the House of Meilland of Provence to mark our 30th year, is a beautiful, white, hybrid tea rose of immense beauty.

Mr Meilland visited Melbourne’s Monbulk Rose Farm to inspect the Brilliance Rose and several other Meilland roses on display, much to the delight of several budding young flower aficionados, who loved to stop and smell the roses!

The Brilliance Rose will be on display at the Melbourne Flower and Garden show from March 29-April 2 2017 at the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens. It will also feature in the April/May edition of Country Style.

To purchase the rose, inquire at your local garden centre. Part proceeds from all sales of the rose go to support vital child health research at MCRI.

There’s still time to step up for research!

It’s not too late to sign up or donate to our major annual fundraiser, Stepathon!

Thousands of Stepathon participants around Australia are preparing to don their sneakers and get moving in the quest to reach 100,000 steps in one week, from 6-12 March, while raising funds for MCRI research.

Our amazing ambassador, Melbourne City player Tim Cahill, has been hitting the airwaves and appearing in newspapers Australia-wide to spread the Stepathon
message and call for participants to get on board to support the Institute’s vital research.

Meanwhile, our scientists have been spruiking their research to media in support of the campaign, including Group A Streptococcus researcher Kristy Azzopardi who is taking part in Stepathon with her daughter Lucia. Ms Azzopardi has been working in the field of infection and immunity for the past 13 years and has seen first-hand the impact that fundraisers like Stepathon have on medical advancements. “It makes such a huge difference,” she said. “We don’t know why the Group A Strep infection becomes serious in some patients. We want to change that. Donations contribute a substantial amount to our funding.”

For more information or to register or donate, visit