Bright ideas among $31M Australian Government funding boost

WEHI’s COVID-19, dementia and blood cancer researchers are among the beneficiaries of $10.9M of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding announced this week by the Australian Government.

The new NHMRC Ideas Grants and Postgraduate Scholarships are part of a total of $31.5M of NHMRC funding grants received by WEHI’s researchers in 2020. This has included:

  • Twelve NHMRC Ideas Grants, supporting teams of researchers
  • Two NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarships, enabling our successful clinician-researchers to undertake training via a higher degree by research
  • Ten NHMRC Investigator Grants contributing to the research program of individual researchers
  • One NHMRC e-ASIA Joint Research Program Grant, supporting an international collaboration to investigate dengue fever

At a glance

  • The Australian Government’s NHMRC has announced WEHI researchers have received 12 Ideas Grants and two Postgraduate Scholarships in 2020 funding round.
  • The funding will support WEHI researchers’ work to improve the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of a range of diseases, including COVID-19, dementia and blood cancers.

Better antiviral therapies

Smiling researcher

Associate Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger’s research

towards new antiviral medicines received an NHMRC

Ideas Grant

Associate Professor Ethan Goddard-Borger received an NHMRC Ideas Grant for his research towards developing new antiviral medicines which could help to treat COVID-19 as well as other globally significant and emerging viruses. The research builds on Associate Professor Goddard-Borger’s long-term interest in how proteins are modified by sugars – a field called glycobiology – and will use the drug discovery capabilities of WEHI’s National Drug Discovery Centre.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the dearth of effective broad-spectrum anti-viral medicines in our current pharmacopeia,” he said. “This project will focus on developing drug candidates that target specific human proteins that are required by viruses to replicate within our cells. By targeting common human components required for infection, rather than the virus itself, we hope to develop new medicines that could be effective against a wide range of viruses – including SARS-CoV-2 and those viruses which may emerge in the future. This will avoid the long lead time required to develop a medicine that is specific to a particular virus.

“This research builds on fundamental cell biology and drug discoveries made since the 1980s. Our access to WEHI’s leading drug discovery capabilities and virus research facilities means we can take a fresh look at this promising approach to antiviral drug development. We hope that this research will lead to new and enduring tools for combating current and future viral threats,” Associate Professor Goddard-Borger said.

Improving how dementia is diagnosed

Smiling researcher

Dr Paula Loveland’s NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarship

will enable her to investigate dementia.

An NHMRC Postgraduate Research Fellowship was awarded to Dr Paula Loveland, a clinician specialising in geriatric medicine. Dr Loveland said the funding would enable her to undertake PhD studies with Associate Professor Rosie Watson and Associate Professor Nawaf Yassi, which will focus on improving the diagnosis of people with dementia.

“Lewy body dementia is a common yet under-recognised form of dementia in older people,” she said. “Improving how the condition is diagnosed would greatly improve outcomes for patients and their families – and my research is focussed on whether this could be achieved using a blood test.”

“My PhD studies will be part of the Lewy Body Study, a Melbourne-based longitudinal clinical and biomarker study of Lewy body dementia. We will look for markers of neurodegeneration and inflammation in the blood of people with dementia, to see whether they correlate with changes in the brain seen by neuroimaging, as well as clinical outcomes. This could lead to more rapid and accurate ways to diagnose people with Lewy body dementia, allowing these people to receive the best therapies for their condition. We also hope these biomarkers may indicate how Lewy body dementia develops, potentially leading to the discovery of new therapies,” Dr Loveland said.

Overcoming a common driver of blood cancers

Dr Gemma Kelly received two NHMRC Ideas grants

to support her research into blood cancers

Dr Gemma Kelly received two NHMRC Ideas Grants, which will support her team’s research into blood cancers that have faults in a tumour suppressor protein called p53. She said it was exciting to have ongoing funding support to advance her research for the next three years.

“A large number of cancer cells contain faults in p53, and as well as driving cancer this can also contribute to cancers’ resistance to common therapies,” she said. “Our research will investigate at the molecular level how p53 normally protects cells from cancer-causing changes, as well as how faults in p53 can make cells resistant to a broad range of cancer therapies.

“Despite intense worldwide efforts, restoring p53’s function in cancer cells has not been possible. Our research instead will look for the ‘partners in crime’ of faulty p53, potentially identifying new targets that could be used to treat blood cancers,” she said.

Dr Kelly’s Ideas Grants support a team of researchers including experts in bioinformatics, molecular biology, immunology and clinical studies. “While we are tackling some of the most-asked questions in cancer biology, by bringing together a team of people with diverse expertise we can take new approaches to solving these problems – and bring us closer to life-saving new therapies for people with blood cancer.”

Critical support

NHMRC funding is a critical component of Australia’s medical research sector, said WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton AO. “For 92 years, the Australian Government has supported outstanding medical research that has improved the health and wellbeing of Australians. This year’s NHMRC grants have gone to remarkable researchers at all stages of the career path, and I will watch the progress of their research with excitement.

“I’d also like to acknowledge the valuable support many of these researchers have received in the leadup to their funding, in particular from philanthropists who have been able to step in to support outstanding researchers who have just missed out on government funding. This synergy is critical in ensuring scientists, at all stages of their career, are able to progress their research, make new discoveries and translate these into improvements in disease prevention diagnosis and treatment.”

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