Seven University of Newcastle researchers have been awarded more than $7 million in National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ideas Grants, designed to support innovative and creative research projects which address a specific question.
In collaboration with Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI)*, the Newcastle researchers will explore the effect of bushfire smoke on unborn babies, evaluate wheat as a cause of chronic indigestion, investigate the link between a stroke drug and dementia, and study why the process of perception is disrupted for people living with schizophrenia.
Other projects will focus on the future of Aboriginal health research; possible links between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety with preterm birth; and a potential therapeutic strategy for severe asthma.
University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Janet Nelson said the NHMRC funding reflected the University’s passion for, and commitment to, driving health outcomes for people in our region and beyond.
“Our researchers are at the forefront of their respective fields, ready to challenge conventional thinking, break new ground and create better health initiatives that change lives,” Professor Nelson said.
“This funding will help our Hunter-based researchers discover, develop and deliver new solutions to significant health challenges that affect all Australians.”
HMRI Director Professor Mike Calford said the institute was looking forward to supporting the awardees to deliver world class medical research in the Hunter.
“Congratulations to the lead researchers and their teams in securing these well-deserved grants,” Professor Calford said.
“The Ideas Grants program is designed to support innovative and creative research, the success of our research community is exciting and will lead to important progress to improve health outcomes for our community.”
The grants are the second round to be offered through the scheme since its inception.
The NHMRC Ideas Grants recipients are:
Professor Simon Keely $2 million
Functional dyspepsia, characterised by chronic pain in the upper abdomen and severe bloating, often occurring after meals, affects up to 15 per cent of Australians. The cause is unknown and there are no effective treatments. This project will evaluate the role of wheat as a driver of the subtle inflammation and disturbances in the microbiome of functional dyspepsia patients, and test whether a gluten or wheat free diet is an effective treatment option.
Professor Peter Gibson $1.7 million
The length and intensity of the Australian bushfire season of 2019/2020 was unprecedented. Professor Peter Gibson and his team will investigate whether bushfire smoke has long term impacts on children whose mothers were pregnant during a bad fire season. The team will explore a potential mechanism called epigenetics, which changes the way genes are expressed in response to environmental conditions.
Doctor Michelle Bovill $1 million
Ethical, high quality research is needed to reduce the health gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. This study will investigate the experiences of Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal health researchers. Collected data will inform a nationally-endorsed set of practical recommendations to guide future Aboriginal health research.
Professor Jonathan Hirst $799,800
Preterm birth leads to the early loss of the nurturing uterine environment which supports key developmental processes. This results in behavioral disorders later in life including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. Preterm birth leads to loss of support for the maturation of myelinating cells. This work will delineate therapies for preterm neonates that restore myelination and improve long-term behavioral outcomes.
Professor Peter Wark $789,400
Airway remodeling in asthma is associated with poor clinical outcomes and is not prevented by current treatments. Endoplasmic reticulum stress (ERS) and the unfolded protein response (UPR), are crucial processes that occur in cells when they are undergoing stress.
Chronic inflammation in the airways of people with asthma activates this process and asthma airway cells are unable to reverse switch it off. This prevents resolution of inflammation and leads to changes that worsen asthma symptoms such as cough and breathlessness. This study will investigate whether inhibition of this process can reverse these changes and restore the airway cells to normal functioning. This is an entirely new therapeutic strategy for asthma.
Professor Michael Nilsson $446,300
Stroke survivors are at risk of dementia. Blood brain barrier damage after stroke may allow drugs in the bloodstream to enter the brain. This project will explore the impact of commonly prescribed medications on the trajectory of recovery. Building on compelling experimental results, this project will take advantage of the unique power of selected Swedish medical registries. The work will bring together leading experts in stroke management and rehabilitation, epidemiology and machine learning to develop prediction algorithms for recovery trajectories.
Professor Juanita Todd $344,824
The team will explore the brain-ability-behaviour relationships that can explain causes of the severe mental illness, schizophrenia. Changes in the brain in schizophrenia affect how people perceive the world around them. Perception relies on an ability to use information in memory to shape what we perceive. Professor Todd and her team will study brain activity and task abilities to help them to understand where, why and how this process becomes disrupted in the brains of people with schizophrenia.
* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.