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Spring Edition - September 2019

Spring Edition - September 2019

Reporting on a record year

Annual Report

The MCRI 2018 Annual Report is out now. For great stories of ground-breaking research from across the Institute, take a look.

Eliminating a public health problem

Nurse and child

MCRI’s Global Health team has been awarded $10 million by the Macquarie Group to roll out the World Scabies Elimination Program. The aim is to eliminate scabies as a public health problem.

More than 200 million people worldwide are affected by scabies at any one time, most of them children living in disadvantaged communities. Scabies is a huge public health problem in the Asia-Pacific region, and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — seven out of 10 will suffer from scabies before their first birthday.

Scabies is a debilitating and stigmatising skin disease caused by a tiny mite (sarcoptes scabiei) that burrows under the skin, leading to extreme itching that ruins sleep and makes it difficult to concentrate at school.

It is frequently complicated by bacterial skin infection, and can lead to severe complications including abscesses, septicaemia, kidney failure and rheumatic heart disease.

The complications of scabies cause substantial disability and death; rheumatic heart disease alone causes over 300,000 premature deaths per year.

MCRI researchers, working with in-country experts, have demonstrated that treatment with a single dose of the oral medication ivermectin can eliminate scabies in a whole community. With the $10 million from the Macquarie Group, the goal is to roll the program out to the whole populations of Fiji and the Solomon Islands: 1.5 million people.

Heard of CMV? Eight in 10 Australians have had it

Mother and baby

Cytomegalovirus, or CMV isn’t just an incredibly common virus, it’s also the most common viral cause of disability.

Eight in 10 Australians have had CMV and it can be passed on to babies while they’re in the womb. That infection can lead to a baby being born with congenital CMV. If that happens, it can result in hearing loss, vision loss and neurodevelopmental disorders such as cerebral palsy for the baby.

A study, run by MCRI, the University of Melbourne and four maternity hospitals with the support of the Deafness Foundation, aims to discover ways to get a faster diagnosis of young babies born with CMV infection who have a hearing loss.

An early diagnosis is important for families so they can put strategies in place to help their child reach its full potential.

Under the pilot, newborn babies from the Mercy (Heidelberg), Monash, Sunshine and the Royal Women’s hospitals who do not pass their second newborn hearing check, will be offered a saliva swab test in the hope of detecting the virus within the first three weeks of life.

Dr Valerie Sung from MCRI, said that congenital CMV is the most common viral cause of disability. But because there is no vaccine or treatment for pregnant women, they are not routinely screened.

Reduce your risk of exposure to CMV by:

  • Washing hands often with soap and running water for at least 15 seconds and drying them thoroughly, particularly after contact with young children or handling toys
  • Not sharing food, drinks, eating utensils or toothbrushes with young children
  • Avoiding contact with saliva when kissing a child
  • Using detergent and water to clean toys, countertops and other surfaces that come into contact with children’s urine, mucus or saliva.

To learn more about infant hearing screening, see: the importance of newborn hearing screening

Parents’ health shows in their kids by the age of 11

Child Health CheckPoint

A parent’s lung, heart and bone health all have an impact on their child by the age of 11 or 12, according to a snapshot of pre-teen health.

Through a 15-minute, circuit-style series of tests, researchers examined the links between the health of 11—12 year olds and at least one parent, looking for clues to the genetic and environmental causes of disease development.

In the Child Health CheckPoint, researchers ran one-off physical assessments of 1800 children and their parents across 30 Australian cities and towns, travelling 17,000 kilometres in the process.

Child Health CheckPoint project leader Professor Melissa Wake said information from the assessments would help governments, health workers and researchers develop strategies to keep Australians healthy.

“Identifying possible links between the health of a child and their parents means we can identify high-risk kids while the window for prevention remains wide — and take steps to keep them healthy,” Melissa said.

Watch an interview with Melissa in the video below: 

Linking communications and vaccine advocacy

Jessica Kaufman

Originally from the United States, Dr Jessica Kaufman completed her undergraduate degree in communication studies. Rather than a life working in sales and marketing, Jessica decided to move to Australia to try her luck at health promotion.

A research role at La Trobe University turned into a PhD focused on improving the ways we evaluate vaccine communication strategies.

A passion for creating and implementing new vaccine promotion strategies then led to Jessica joining MCRI to work with Associate Professor Margie Danchin's Vaccine and Immunisation Research Group.

Jessica’s focus is now research projects that revolve around improving uptake and acceptance of vaccines. One of these projects involves developing a database of instruments to measure vaccine-related attitudes, knowledge and decision-making. A project related to social media messaging around vaccines is also in the pipeline.

Jessica says her job keeps her very busy, but she is loving what she is doing.

“Working at MCRI is exciting, I love how varied our work is. We’re working to address globally relevant issues like increasing vaccine acceptance and changing vaccine behaviours.

“It can be busy juggling multiple projects, but it means I’m constantly applying skills to new situations and learning about new populations.

“It’s great to be part of a supportive team and backed by an internationally respected organisation like MCRI. We’re known for being at the cutting edge of research." 

Breakthrough in dwarfism research boosts growth rates


A groundbreaking drug that helps regulate bone development has boosted growth rates in children with achondroplasia — the most common type of dwarfism.

MCRI clinical geneticist Professor Ravi Savarirayan, said achondroplasia is caused by overactivity of a signal that stops growth, and could be likened to overwatering a plant.

“This drug basically kinks the hose so that the plant gets the right amount of water and can resume regular growth,” said Ravi.

Achondroplasia affects around one in every 25,000 babies. It leads to short stature, and significant health complications.

For children, the most common complications are spinal cord compression, spinal curvature and bowed legs. Around half of affected children will need spinal or other surgery.

“This can mean a lot of time away from school as the child recovers and rehabilitates after surgery, which can affect important social connections”, said Ravi.

Unlike other treatments that focus on symptoms, the new drug, vosoritide, focuses on the underlying cause of achondroplasia and directly counteracts the effect of the mutation that slows growth.

Early studies from the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine found that the patients’ average boost in height about six centimetres (2.4 inches) per year was close to growth rates among children of average stature, and the side effects of the drug were mostly mild.

Ravi said “This study is the very first report of a possible disruptive, precision therapy for children with achondroplasia, which we hope will improve their health outcomes and functioning, as well as increase their height and access to their environment.”

Watch an interview with Ravi talking about the significance of this study in the video below:

Sounds like great sleep – a new podcast

Sleep Podcast

Two of Australia’s leading child sleep experts, Professor Harriet Hiscock and Associate Professor Emma Sciberras from MCRI, have teamed up with PodcastOne productions to make the Sleep podcast series.

Over eight episodes, Harriet and Emma present clear, evidence-based information about sleep from babies to adolescence; as well as exploring common causes of sleep trouble: autism, ADHD, behavioural problems and more.

If you’d like to know more about helping your child get a better night’s sleep, listen to the free sleep podcast series or find it on your preferred podcasting app.

Your sister has a serious illness – how far will you go to help?

Rosie and Katie

For 7 year-old Rosie, watching her sister Katie go through three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy was really tough.

Katie has neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), a disease that affects one in every 3000 children and looks different for each one of them. For some children, the effects are mild. For Katie it meant years of gruelling chemotherapy.

Rosie knew she couldn’t come into our labs and help out the researchers, but still wanted to do something to help her sister and other kids like her. So she came up with a creative way to raise money — she asked people to sponsor her to cut off her hair.

Rosie’s hair was ultimately made into a wig for a child who lost her hair to cancer treatment. For MCRI, Rosie’s efforts raised an amazing $4000. These funds will go to support work on neurofibromatosis being done by Dr Jonathan Payne and his team in the Brain and Mind Research Group at MCRI.

Jonathan said ‘Every person who helps our work makes a difference to what we can achieve. Rosie’s inspiring effort is one of the greatest gifts.”

Katie is still undergoing treatment for NF1, but MCRI researchers have her and other kids at the heart of our goals. Our researchers want to find why neurofibromatosis happens, identify new treatments, and one day, find a cure.

Early childhood trauma and adult mental health. What can we do?

CAMH Launch

The Chair of Beyond Blue, The Hon. Julia Gillard AC, launched a cutting-edge research project aimed at tackling the link between early childhood trauma and adult mental health issues.

The $2.5 million, five-year project will seek to reduce the impact of adversity or hardship on young children (between birth and 8 years-old) in Wyndham, Melbourne, and Marrickville, Sydney, and identify and enhance support services for at-risk families.

Ms Gillard said the MCRI’s work is vital because half all adult mental health issues emerge before the age of 14.

“This program will demonstrate how important it is to invest in the early years because adverse childhood experiences can have life-long implications for mental health, social, academic and employment outcomes.”

Lead researcher, MCRI’s Professor Harriet Hiscock said “children who experience stresses or adversities as they grow up are six to 10 times more likely to develop mental health problems later in life.”

Her team of researchers will identify what practical supports parents need in order to reduce hardships at home, for example more accessible counselling, housing support and health care.

The long-term goal of the research is to prevent, or intervene early, in incidents of childhood trauma or adversity in order to reduce national rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

“These adversities include a broad range of factors from physical and emotional abuse or neglect, parental mental health problems, harsh parenting, parental substance abuse, through to housing problems and social isolation. By lessening the stresses on young children, we improve their wellbeing now and in the future.”

Project study senior researcher, MCRI’s Professor Sharon Goldfeld said previous research has demonstrated the benefits of tackling the childhood origins of mental health problems, but Australian families most in need were still not getting support.

“We don’t yet know exactly what the mix of supports will be,” said Sharon. “But there may be a need for more health, educational and social supports.

“Once this is decided, we could deliver these at a one-stop shop like a community health centre and then work hand-in-hand with the community to care for families.”

The project is led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, and co-funded by Beyond Blue and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Watch the Hon. Julia Gillard AC speaking at the event in the video below:

A Queen’s Birthday honour for research royalty

Ruth Bishop

Ruth Bishop, a scientist with MCRI and professor at the University of Melbourne, was appointed a Companion to the Order of Australia in the 2019 Queen's Birthday Honours.

In 1973 the then Dr Bishop, a researcher at The Royal Children’s Hospital, along with Dr Ian Holmes at the University of Melbourne, discovered rotavirus, the cause of severe gastroenteritis causing millions of deaths in children around the world.

Ruth proposed that a virus might be the elusive infective agent and sent the intestinal biopsies taken from children with acute gastroenteritis at The Royal Children’s Hospital for electron-microscopy examination at the University of Melbourne.

Under the electron microscopy, it was clear that the intestinal cells were infected with a wheel-like virus, subsequently named rotavirus. This virus was then shown to be the major cause of severe dehydrating gastroenteritis in children under 5 around the world.

In a television interview, Ruth tried to describe her joy after identifying the virus.

“It was so sort of satisfying to solve a puzzle,” she said. “You can’t really imagine what it is like until it has happened to you.”

Ruth was one of only two Victorians to receive Companions to the Order of Australia in 2019.

“I am honoured and grateful to receive this award,” she said.

MCRI congratulates Professor Bishop AC on her award.