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Autumn Edition - April 2019

Autumn Edition - April 2019

There are a lot of things that can get in the way of being a good parent

Mother and Child

MCRI researchers have given a group of at-risk families triple the usual number of maternal health nurse home visits, showing that intensive nurse home visits are one of the best ways to help all children get the best start in life.

UNICEF and former US President Barack Obama both champion nurse home visits as a way to help disadvantaged families,” said lead investigator, Prof Sharon Goldfeld.

“These are families dealing with challenges like poor mental health, a lack of employment, limited education, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or even just families where the parents are very young and inexperienced. Mostly it’s a combination of these factors.”

At the moment, one in five Australian children start school with developmental vulnerabilities compared to their classmates. This is especially the case for children who live in disadvantage.

Research from across the world has shown that children who start behind, continue to fall further and further behind their peers and are more likely to find themselves unemployed or in low-wage jobs and to experience poor health.

The right@home sustained nurse visiting program consists of 25 regular visits from a nurse from before birth and during a new baby’s first two years of life.

Prof Goldfeld said maternal and child health nurses had been helping new mothers in Australia for more than 100 years, and were best placed to support them as they developed their parenting skills.

“This program is essentially about using an existing service – maternal and child health – better,” Prof Goldfeld said.

right@home was designed as part of a partnership with the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) and the Translational Research and Social Innovation (TReSI) Group at Western Sydney University. ARACY CEO Penny Dakin said the program is further proof of the importance of early and evidence-based investment in the future of vulnerable Australian children.

“The program is easily incorporated into Australia’s existing nurse home visiting programs. We want to see governments across Australia making it available to the nation’s most vulnerable kids and their families,” Ms Dakin said.

To learn more, see Nurse home visiting making a difference

Early-life anaesthetic has no long-term ill effects

Baby

If your baby has to have an operation it’s scary enough without worrying about the long-term effects of a general anaesthetic.

But now, new research from MCRI has found that parents can drop this extra worry: there’s no lasting impact on children’s brain development or behaviour after one episode of early-life anaesthetic.

The study was a major international collaboration, involving 722 babies in 28 hospitals in seven countries. All the babies were younger than 60 weeks.

Prof Andrew Davidson said “five years later the children were given a formal IQ test and there was no sign of any difference between the two groups”.

To learn more about this study, see Early-life anaesthetic safe for babies 

Mixed bag for Australian adolescents

Adolescents

Across the world, 1.8 billion people are adolescents – aged between 10 and 24. That’s more than one in five people on the planet.

To support adolescents worldwide to have the best outcomes, The Lancet designed a universal set of 12 indicators for adolescent health and wellbeing. By using that global measure, we’re able to create a snapshot of how our young people are going worldwide.

For Australia’s adolescents, the results were mixed. Overall, the study found that the health challenge facing this generation is greater today than it was 25 years ago.

For our young people, the greatest risk areas were binge drinking and obesity. On the positive side, Australian adolescents had the highest rate worldwide of access to contraception at 95 per cent.

MCRI’s Dr Peter Azzopardi, who is also co-head of Adolescent Health at the Burnet Institute, said health, education, and legal systems have not kept pace with demographic shifts and growing geographical inequality in adolescent health needs.

Dr Azzopardi also called out gender inequity as a powerful driver of poor adolescent health in many countries. “The case for comprehensive and integrated investments in adolescent health, growth, and development has never been stronger,” he said.

To read more, see Large unmet needs and growing inequalities

Meet Professor Angela Morgan

Angela Morgan

Angela Morgan started to work in speech phenotyping early – very early.

As a child, she was fascinated by the way people spoke and was even mapping mild speech errors in her family while she was at primary school. Her path into speech and language research was set.

Once she finished school and university, she worked clinically to confirm her suspicions that there was a genetic link to the speech errors she observed, then expanded her work into research.

Now, as lead of the Speech and Language Group at MCRI, Professor Angela Morgan leads a team focused on the causes of speech and language disorders in childhood. By discovering the causes, the team can contribute to more targeted therapies to address the problems.

As well as her research, Angela is a practising speech pathologist, supports research for the Speech Pathology discipline at the University of Melbourne, and is a mum to two boys. She’s a very busy lady.

“I think I don’t consider it a juggle as I love my job. I am truly obsessed by communication. Beyond my early family experiences of speech disorder, I attended high school with a friend with a severe stutter, and I had three friends with profound hearing impairment, as we had a ‘deaf unit’ as it was then called, at my high school.

“These experiences gave me further insights into the impacts of communication disorder on people’s social and emotional outcomes, not to mention their academic outcomes. This fueled my passion to work in this field to try and make a difference wherever possible.” 

At MCRI, Angela’s team works on many of the rare and debilitating speech and language disorders that can affect children, these include Kabuki syndrome, Floating Harbor syndrome, FOXP2-related speech and language disorders, Klinefelter syndrome, Koolen de Vries syndrome, 16p11.2 deletion and more.

Angela finds this work incredibly rewarding. “We love working closely with genetic support groups and with the loving families of affected children. These families are not only motivated to learn more about their own children, but motivated to contribute to the greater good for other affected families in the future.”

As a leader of a group of young and upcoming researchers, Angela feels energised by working with a team who are motivated to make the difference for children.

“I’ve been privileged to see so many successful young researchers in my group obtain PhDs, and contribute to our understanding of speech and language disorders. These young researchers are committed to helping children and their families achieve the best possible outcomes for kids’ health and quality of life.”

Watch a short interview with Angela, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs816G4AIDY

Sleep easy with ADHD

Child sleeping

For many children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep.

The mental and physical restlessness that’s part of the condition can make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep through the night and wake up refreshed.

Now, there’s some light in the dark. Kids with ADHD are showing promising gains from a sleep program developed by researchers at MCRI and Deakin University.

The results have shown that a simple two-session program can improve children’s sleep, ADHD symptoms, quality of life, daily functioning and behaviour compared to kids who did not receive the program. And the benefits last for at least 12 months.

Lead author A/Prof Emma Sciberras said while the improvements were small to moderate, the results were exciting given they were achieved in only two face-to-face sessions.

“Being a brief intervention makes it suitable for most families as well as making it feasible for delivery by other clinicians, such as paediatricians and GPs,” said A/Prof Sciberras.

Treating sleep problems in children with ADHD has the potential to deliver longer-term benefits.

“This study shows that children who attend a two-session intervention focused on improved sleep have a range of benefits 12 months later including improved sleep, ADHD symptoms and overall quality of life,” she said.

Having had success with this sleep intervention for children aged five to 13 years, the researchers are now piloting a program suitable for adolescents, and running a trial for children with an autism spectrum disorder. Email emma.sciberras@deakin.edu.au to find out more about the studies.

To learn more about this study, including the healthy sleep habits the researchers taught kids and families, see ADHD and sleep

Supporting the next generation of research

Professor Melissa Little

MCRI’s Professor Melissa Little, Director of Cell Biology, is also co-lead of the Australian Stem Cells Therapies Mission alongside Prof Mark Kendall from ANU in Canberra.

In March, the Australian Stem Cells Therapies Mission was awarded $150 million to enable critical stem cell research into new ways to treat congenital heart disease, blindness, stroke, dementia and kidney disease.

Prof Little’s team is working to develop human kidney tissue that will function after transplant. A breakthrough in this area will open the door to kidney disease modelling, drug screening and, potentially, bioengineered replacement kidney tissue.

Prof Little said stem cell science has been a strength within Australian biomedical research for many decades.

“We are at the stage where we can apply what we have learnt in the lab to the clinic, impacting the future of medicine.

“This mission will allow Australian patients and researchers an opportunity to contribute to next generation medicine.”

To learn more about the funding announcement, see Funding to advance research into stem-cell based therapies

At the heart of the problem

Strep A announcement

MCRI will be a key partner in a $35 million national consortium formed to fast track a vaccine against Strep A, the highly contagious bacterium that causes around 500,000 deaths every year.

The Federal Minister for Indigenous Health, Ken Wyatt, awarded $35 million to the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth to lead the consortium, with MCRI a key partner.

MCRI infectious diseases Prof Andrew Steer, who is a world expert in Strep A, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have one of the highest rates of Strep A disease in the world.

“Strep A usually begins with a sore throat, but if left untreated it causes the immune system to become overactive, which can result in rheumatic heart disease, where antibodies damage the heart valves.”

“Globally Strep A is almost as deadly as malaria parasites, tuberculosis bacteria and HIV but internationally little has been invested in Strep A research. This funding is very welcome, because with a new vaccine we could stop Strep A infections in Australia and around the world.”

“In Australia 94 per cent of rheumatic heart disease occurs among Indigenous Australians,” Prof Steer said. “Globally rheumatic heart disease affects more than 33 million people, causing about 500,000 deaths. That is why it’s imperative we develop a vaccine.”

To learn more, see: Funding for Strep A vaccine

Seeing clearly to speak clearly

Smiling Children

One in 1000 children has apraxia, a severe childhood speech disorder, but understanding apraxia’s origins has until now remained elusive.

Now, researchers at MCRI have led an international study that’s identified a potential cause.

Led by MCRI speech pathologist Prof Angela Morgan, her team has identified anomalies in a key speech pathway of the brain.

With this finding, Prof Morgan said neuroscientists and speech pathologists could be able to develop more targeted treatments for children.

Children with apraxia fail to learn to speak clearly and combine sounds properly, and have impairments with timing and sequencing their words.

“People struggle to understand what they say, which has major negative long-term effects on their self-esteem, academic achievements and quality of life, and their ability to form social relationships,” Prof Morgan said.

The sophisticated developmental imaging technology available at MCRI was essential to the discovery.

“Normal MRI scans found no anomalies,” said Prof Morgan, “but we used a very sophisticated scan that enables 3D modelling analysis, to measure the integrity of brain pathways.”

To learn more, see New insight into apraxia

Victorian Mental Health Royal Commission

Girl on swing

The Victorian Government has established a Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. Researchers from MCRI, alongside Melbourne Children’s Campus partners The Royal Children’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne Department of Paediatrics, contributed to the Terms of Reference for the Commission.

Their submission argued that a very different approach is required to effectively promote and improve the mental health of Victorian children.

They wrote that child mental health services have been relatively neglected from a policy and resource perspective, and noted that child mental health problems are common and they are not declining.

Indeed, the most recent survey on the topic found that more than one in 10 children in Australia had a diagnosable mental health problem. Mental health problems in childhood are likely to persist into adulthood and impact learning, health, employment, and relationships.

The terms of reference and commissioners have now been announced. To learn more, see: Mental Health Royal Commission https://engage.vic.gov.au/royal-commission-mental-health-terms-of-reference  

Celebrating our supporters

Mount Everest Base Camp

Our researchers move mountains to create ground-breaking discoveries that change the face of child health. But some of our supporters are climbing mountains.

From 11-23 March, Melbourne father and daughter Gary and Janna took on the challenge of the 14-day trek to Mt Everest Base Camp. They decided to add to their challenge with a fundraising effort to support MCRI’s work.

They said “We are inspired by the work of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and want to support them by raising money for their research challenges.”

Have you got a brilliant fundraising idea to support our work? We’d love to hear from you and to share your story with our supporters. To find out more, contact our Engagement and Philanthropy team or visit www.mcri.edu.au/get-involved

To learn more about Gary and Janna’s trek and to support their efforts, see Everyday Hero: https://give.everydayhero.com/au/janna-and-gary

New $65 million genomics grants round announced

Minister Hunt

MCRI has welcomed the opening of the first genomics mission competitive grants round, with a focus on research into cancers, children’s illnesses and diseases with low survival rates.

The grants are part of the $500 million Australian Genomics Health Futures Mission and will be informed by an Expert Advisory Committee, chaired by MCRI Director Professor Kathryn North AC.

“Genomics is the foundation of precision medicine, which means faster diagnosis and targeted treatment to improve health outcomes,” Prof North said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said that he was excited about bringing the ‘the promise of genomics’ to all Australians.

“What we do today needs to protect and save lives and set us on the right path so we arrive where we need to be in 10 years.”

To learn more details, see: $65 million genomics grants round opens

You can help create possible

Every donation you make to MCRI has the potential to save a child’s life.

Help MCRI find solutions to serious child health issues.
With your support, our researchers can continue to discover cures and prevent illness.

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