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Winter Edition - June 2020
Winter Edition - June 2020
In this edition:
Here for kids and families in COVID-19
As COVID-19 changes the world, it is easy to feel like the impact of this time for kids and families is being overlooked. But at MCRI, children are at our heart.
MCRI has developed the ‘Parenting the Age of Coronavirus’ podcast series to support parents and carers, providing access to evidence-based expertise when you need it.
- Listen now to our range of podcasts, where we bring together experts to talk through some of the questions that are being raised by the pandemic, whether your kids are preschool, primary school-age or adolescents
- Check out our MCRI blog posts for quick and simple reads on the topics that matter to you, like kids with asthma in COVID-19, pregnancy in the pandemic, and more
- Stay in touch with MCRI research news, whether you’re looking for an interview with a researcher about their work, or an opportunity to read a full research paper.
MCRI’s researchers have stepped up to launch research projects across six areas, all designed to have children and families as a focus:
All systems go
With the support of Rio Tinto, MCRI has launched a project to answer some of the biggest questions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Are some children more vulnerable than others? How long does immunity last? And how will this impact families in the long-term?
As a world leader in population studies, MCRI has a number of large and unique population-based groups of children that are involved in research. Because these children are already taking part in MCRI research programs, there are biological samples and immune data that were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study will draw on five of these groups of around 2000 children, aged 0 to 18 years, as well as a large group of adults for comparison. It will investigate whether some children are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to differences in their immune system; how long immunity to COVID-19 lasts; and examine viral transmission within households.
The study will be a chance to further understand the features and progression, transmission within families and long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection on children’s immune systems and blood vessels.
Associate Professor Kirsten Perrett is one of the co-leads of the study. She says, “We also plan to answer the nagging question of how long children and adults stay immune to COVID-19 and look at the family impacts of SARS-CoV-2 infection – things like how often and heavily families used health services and how it affected their finances.”
Her fellow co-lead, Professor David Burgner, says, “We were so impressed with the speed shown by Rio Tinto in responding to our call for support. This generous philanthropic contribution means we can take full advantage of our years of research into children’s immune systems.”
BRACE for impact
When COVID-19 began, it quickly became clear that the doctors and nurses who look after us all were at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. Thankfully, there’s a vaccine that was invented a century ago that could perhaps help, it’s called the BCG vaccine.
MCRI researchers launched a trial to test the BCG vaccine to see if its ‘off target’ effects on the immune system could protect our doctors and nurses. In March, we started vaccinating 4000 Australian healthcare workers and by the beginning of May, the trial was set to expand.
A A$10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will allow the trial to extend to 10,000 healthcare workers across Australia, Spain and The Netherlands. At the time of the donation, the funding represented the single largest philanthropic donation to the Australian scientific effort against COVID-19.
Philanthropic support allowed the trial’s rapid development and rollout in Australia. This support has included A$700,000 from Sarah and Lachlan Murdoch, A$400,000 from The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation, A$1.5M from The Minderoo Foundation, A$200,000 from the South Australian government and support from the NAB Foundation, Calvert-Jones Foundation, HUB Foundation, River Capital and individual donors.
The BCG vaccine was originally developed against tuberculosis, and is still given to over 130 million babies worldwide annually to protect them.
The trial is led by Professor Nigel Curtis, a clinician-scientist at MCRI and a Professor at the University of Melbourne. He says “We needed to be ahead of the pandemic curve to be able to protect our frontline staff.”
Nigel is grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support to expand this research effort. “This funding will be crucial to quickly enable us to expand the BRACE trial to Sydney in Australia and The Netherlands and Spain internationally,” he said.
“It will be imperative to help our researchers show whether BCG vaccination improves ‘innate’ immunity in frontline healthcare workers to buy crucial time to develop and importantly, validate, a specific anti-COVID-19 vaccine.”
To learn more about the BRACE trial and watch an interview with Professor Nigel Curtis, visit MCRI’s BRACE trial homepage
Breathing life into lung research
Asthma and wheezing are incredibly common for children. But traditionally, there’s been very little information about the cause of these childhood pulmonary diseases and the specific cells that are involved.
Sadly, these sorts of childhood pulmonary diseases are the leading cause of death for children under five worldwide, which makes it vital to find their cause. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) Single-Cell Analysis of Inflammation award will allow researchers at MCRI to start the search.
MCRI’s Dr Melanie Neeland and Professor Sarath Ranganathan, along with Associate Professor Alicia Oshlack from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, were the recipients.
Sarath says childhood pulmonary diseases disproportionately affect people in low and middle income countries, as well as patients from underserved populations in high income countries like Australia.
Melanie says “childhood pulmonary diseases cause both significant illness and death. Inadequate lung development leads to impairment in adult life.
“Given this, optimal treatment of childhood pulmonary disease not only relieves suffering in childhood but also protects long term lung function.”
Founded by Dr Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg in 2015, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is a new kind of philanthropy that’s leveraging technology to help solve some of the world’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease, to improving education, to reforming the criminal justice system. Across three core Initiative focus areas of Science, Education, and Justice and Opportunity, we’re pairing engineering with grant-making, impact investing, and policy and advocacy work to help build an inclusive, just and healthy future for everyone. For more information, visit www.chanzuckerberg.com
The genes behind a common speech problem
One in five Australian children starts school with a speech or language disorder. For some of those kids, it means their speech is so unclear, no one outside their family can understand them.
Now, as part of an international study, researchers at MCRI have identified nine new genes that are behind the severe speech disorder childhood apraxia of speech.
MCRI Professor Angela Morgan, who is also Professor of Speech Pathology at the University of Melbourne, says that the new genetic findings would help neuroscientists and speech pathologists to develop more targeted treatments for children.
Before now, the genetic origins of this debilitating speech disorder have remained largely unexplained. “Apraxia is a distinctive, socially debilitating clinical disorder” says Angela.
Children with apraxia fail to learn to speak clearly and combine sounds properly. The timing and sequencing of their words is also affected.
Angela explains that “kids with apraxia typically have problems developing speech from infancy, with a history of poor feeding, limited babbling, delayed onset of first words, and highly unintelligible speech into the preschool years.”
Watch Angela (and comedian Josh Earls) explain the study
COVID coffees for MCRI
During the lockdown, 19-year-old MCRI supporter Hannah Casper found a creative way to fill the hours at home, keep friends and family fuelled on coffee and cake, and support the vital work of MCRI.
She set up Coosy's Coffee, a delivery coffee service run from her home machine in between her uni studies. She’s providing coffee for family and friends during home isolation, plus cakes from Babka Baker, including deliveries that follow physical distancing rules.
Through her efforts, Hannah has already raised over $2000 and decided to donate all proceeds to MCRI. From all of us at MCRI, thanks so much to Hannah for your generous support.
If you have a great idea for supporting MCRI, we would love to hear about it. There are some ideas to get you started on our Community fundraising page, or be like Hannah and get creative.
Your support of medical research is vital
Our child health research programs have continued throughout the COVID-19 crisis thanks to the support of our remarkable community who care for and invest in our work.
While we find ways to tackle the impact of COVID- 19, we remain focused on solving the many chronic problems that continue to affect too many children and their families.
Today’s children are facing some of the biggest health challenges in their lifetime. Together we can find the answers and make a world of difference for generations to come.