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Spring Edition - September 2021

Spring Edition - September 2021

Lockdowns lead to more school-related stress

School lockdowns have highlighted the need for more and better mental health services for young people, according to a recent MCRI study.

As part of the broader Mothers’ and Young People’s study, MCRI surveyed 267 participants aged 14 to 17 years between June and September 2020 during Victoria’s second lockdown. The study found that two in five young people experienced mental health problems and one in five had suicidal thoughts either most days or every day.

The study also found that:
•    four in five teenagers report an increase in school-related stress
•    three in four felt overwhelmed and needed more support from teachers
•    four in five thought the pandemic had a negative impact on their academic results.

Of those experiencing mental health concerns, two in three had not spoken to a health professional. One in three had spoken to a counsellor or psychologist, one in ten had used a mental health phone support line, and just four per cent had spoken to their GP about how they were feeling.

MCRI researcher Dr Ali Fogarty says Australia’s mental health system has been under strain for some time and families face many barriers to seeking help.

“Despite high rates of mental health problems, many young people experiencing depression or anxiety did not have access to adequate mental health support,” Dr Fogarty said. “Many were not engaged with support because of waiting times to see school counsellors and psychologists, lack of a private space at home to talk via telehealth and fears and worries about the process of talking to a health professional.”

While many young have struggled through the lockdowns, others reported positive elements such as spending more time with family, spending more time outdoors, and being able to concentrate better on schoolwork.

Read more here

Putting health at the heart of education

For many children around the world, school is not just a place for learning. School is also central to their health and wellbeing – somewhere they can eat a nutritious meal, learn about good hygiene, and the importance of prioritising mental health and wellbeing. 

The idea of health promotion in schools is not new, but until now there has not been a set of global standards for governments and education systems to follow. Two years ago, the World Health Organization and UNESCO invited researchers from MCRI’s Centre for Adolescent Health to lead the development of a framework for health-promoting schools. The resulting reports were launched in Geneva in June 2021.

The reports set out eight standards that address every level of the education system, from government and school policy through to curriculum, school environment and links with health services. 

School closures during the pandemic have highlighted the profound link between learning and children’s health and wellbeing. MCRI’s Dr Monika Raniti says the health-promoting schools’ approach is about strengthening education systems so that they can integrate health and wellbeing into every school.

“This whole-school approach has been shown to benefit several aspects of learning, health and wellbeing,” she says. 

“Yet there are huge gaps between the ideal of health-promoting schools and current practices. Too often, schools lack adequate resources or must rely on the efforts of a small number of motivated staff who are already at capacity.”

The MCRI-led reports form part of a bigger resource package published by the WHO. The new global standards will be piloted in Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Paraguay.

Read the first report in the series, Making every school a health-promoting school: Global standards and indicators.

FASST support boosts mental health for young transgender people

As gender diversity becomes better understood in society, the number of transgender children and adolescents seeking specialist care is growing.

Unfortunately, this demand for service also increases the pressure on clinical resources, resulting in young transgender people facing wait times of up to two years to access help.

As transgender people are at a higher risk of experiencing negative mental health impacts such as self-harm and suicide, it’s critical that they get the help that they need as early as possible.

To manage this demand, the Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service (RCHGS) launched the First Assessment Single Session Triage (FASST) clinic in 2016. The clinic, which supports young transgender people aged 8 to 17 and their families, has reduced initial wait times by 10 months.

The good news is that this has also led to lower levels of depression and anxiety in the clinic’s patients, according to an MCRI-led study recently published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study surveyed 142 patients who completed questionnaires before and after attending the FASST clinic. MCRI Associate Professor Ken Pang says the study found the clinic led to improvements in depression, anxiety, quality of life and family functioning.

“Participants found attending the clinic provided validation, not only for themselves, but also their families, classmates and wider communities,” he says. “This validation had flow-on effects, improving their sense of self, boosting their confidence, and increasing parental understanding, acceptance and support.”

The FASST clinic has made a world of difference for patients like 18-year-old Mac Zamani. After his initial assessment, the FASST clinic referred Mac to a psychologist, paediatrician, and speech therapist at the RCHGS, where he is still a patient today.

“I’d be in a very different place without this support over the past four years,” he said. “I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I have friends who had very different experiences, parents who weren’t supportive and had to wait years to see a psychologist.”

Find out more about MCRI’s research into transgender youth health.

Funding win for stem cell research

Four MCRI researchers have received funding for stem cell research that will accelerate new treatments for a range of serious childhood conditions.

Professor Melissa Little, Associate Professor Enzo Porrello, Dr Nicole Van Bergen and Associate Professor David Elliott have secured grants to advance their research into kidney disease, heart failure and a debilitating seizure disorder.

Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, announced the funding at MCRI as part of the 2021 MRFF Stem Cell Therapy Mission round.

Professor Little’s project will harness human stem cells to create mini kidneys that will help find treatments for genetic kidney disease, a life-threatening condition that is largely untreatable.

Associate Professor Porrello’s team are already pioneer’s in developing bioengineered heart tissue from stem cells. Now, they will test whether this technology can treat heart disease, the leading cause of Australian infant deaths.

Dr Van Bergen’s project will use stem cell-derived human brain cells grown in a 3D environment to find treatments for a neurological disorder that causes severe seizures and developmental delays in young children.

Finally, Dr Elliott’s project aims to prevent heart failure that can occur in childhood cancer survivors as a result of chemotherapy by using miniature human hearts to identify heart-protecting drugs.

Learn more about these potentially ground-breaking projects here.

Pint-sized participants needed for whooping cough vaccine trial

A new clinical trial investigating whether a whooping cough vaccine can help prevent allergies in early childhood is in need of participants.

More than 1500 babies, aged six -12 weeks, are needed for the OPTIMUM Study, conducted at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, the Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, and The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney.

There are two types of whooping cough vaccine: whole-cell and acellular. While both are safe and effective, the acellular type trains the immune system to produce only a few specific types of antibodies.

The whole-cell type, on the other hand, trains the immune system to produce a range of different antibodies and to tell the difference between harmful bacteria and harmless things like food. Australia currently uses the acellular type, so researchers are keen to learn more about the whole-cell type.

“We hope that by training the immune system in this way we will stop it mistakenly mounting allergic responses to harmless substances,” says MCRI Associate Professor Kirsten Perrett.

Australia has the highest rates of childhood food allergy in the world, with about one in 10 infants and one in 20 children up to five years of age being allergic.

“There are many factors currently being investigated that may contribute to why so many more children have food allergies,” say Associate Professor Perrett. “At this stage we have some hunches about why food allergy has risen so sharply but we need to do these clinical trials to find out for sure.”

All children enrolled in the study will receive a free, comprehensive allergy check when they turn one, to test for reactions to the seven most common childhood allergens, including peanut, egg, grass pollen and cow’s milk. 

Find out more and register for the trial here.

Mapping a solution to Muscular Dystrophy

The Muscular Dystrophy Australia (MDA) building is just seven minutes’ walk from MCRI. Maps of Victoria and New South Wales line the office, speckled with small, coloured flags representing an individual and their community affected by muscular dystrophy.

Boris Struk first founded MDA in 1984 after learning that his three-year-old son, Ryan, had the most common and severe form of muscular dystrophic disease, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

Muscular dystrophies are a group of genetically inherited diseases causing weakness and degeneration of the skeletal muscles. Most children with DMD lose their ability to walk by their mid-teens. Worsening heart and lung problems cause life-threatening complications and eventually death, usually before 30 years of age.

Boris describes MDA as a refuge for families left devastated after a muscular dystrophy diagnosis. He is a strong believer that “people with muscular dystrophies need access to two things that MDA is able to offer: information and support ‘in the now’ and hope through research for a timely solution”. To that end, MDA has been supporting MCRI for 15 years, including through the generous donation of more than $1.5 million to support research into muscular diseases, including DMD.

MDA is also helping support the next generation of leading researchers, including Dr Chantal Coles, who works closely with the Muscular Disease Group, co-led by MCRI’s Director, Professor Kathryn North, and Associate Professor Peter Houweling.

Dr Coles is conducting several exciting projects, including using patient stem cells to grow muscle tissues that can be “exercised” in a dish and screened with new and existing drug compounds using the Stafford Fox Drug Screening Platform.

This research will enable us to better understand why muscular dystrophies occur and test drugs that may be able to stop muscular dystrophy in its tracks.

Boris recently retired after 33 years of leading MDA. Boris’s most endearing features have always been a combination of pride, humbleness and passion for his cause. Sadly, Ryan passed away on October 9, 2020. His legacy will live on through MDA.

MCRI pays tribute to both Boris and Ryan for their contribution towards our research, and for their ongoing support of MD communities both in Australia and beyond. Our partnership brings hope for finding better therapies for patients diagnosed with muscular dystrophies and eventually, a cure.

Going above and beyond for child health

We are excited and honoured to share our latest 2020 Annual Report.

The 2020 Annual Report showcases the far-reaching impact of our research to improve the lives of children in Australia, and internationally. It is a celebration of what was achieved thanks to our supporters, and our collaborators. 

With thanks to our incredible network of committed supporters, we were able to work together on global projects to address COVID-19, provide trusted health and well-being advice to parents and families, and continue to progress key areas of research in genetics, stem cells and global health. 

Of particular note is a world-first BCG vaccine trial which has recruited more than 6000 healthcare workers globally, to determine if the vaccine can protect them against severe COVID-19; a Federal Parliament health committee inquiry which supports MCRI’s Centre for Food and Allergy’s recommendation to establish a National Centre for Allergies and Anaphylaxis; and a study of 3D kidneys created in a lab using a 3D-bioprinter, allowing researchers to explore personalised medicine for children with rare kidney conditions.  

A special thanks to our Global Ambassador, and now Co-Chair, Sarah Murdoch who has also represented MCRI on the global stage for 20 years.

Read about our impact, inspiring stories, and continued mission to make profound improvements to children's lives everywhere.

View MCRI's 2020 Annual Report