La Trobe awarded $7.35m in NHMRC grants

La Trobe University research teams have been awarded a combined $7.35 million in grants to support groundbreaking health research projects.

Announced today by the Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler MP, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants scheme funds researchers at all career stages in areas of health and medical research, from discovery to implementation.

Of significance is a $2.9 million NHMRC Investigator Grant awarded to the La Trobe researcher who invented a groundbreaking diagnostic tool to help detect early-stage cancer.

Professor Brian Abbey, Deputy Director of the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science (LIMS), developed the innovative NanoMslide with colleague Dr Eugeniu Balaur. The world-first nanofabricated microscope slide uses colour contrast to easily and quickly identify abnormal cells. It can be applied to any tissue and has shown significant promise in aiding the diagnosis of early stage and difficult-to-diagnose cancers – including breast cancer. Professor Abbey said the grant will be a significant contribution to his research and enable them to progress the NanoMslide to clinical trials and eventually, global application.

“Misdiagnosis of early-stage cancers is a major cause of illness and death worldwide. This is often due to the current lack of a reliable, commercially available biomarker for effective disease screening and diagnosis,” Professor Abbey said.

“This grant will help us to expedite ongoing research and verification of the NanoMslide through exhaustive clinical trials, and hopefully enable us to provide this valuable diagnostic tool to scientists around the world in the next five-to-seven years.”

La Trobe University Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Industry Engagement) Professor Susan Dodds said the grant was recognition of the significant development potential for the NanoMslide and its potential to enhance cancer and disease diagnosis.

“The NHMRC Investigator Grant is appropriate recognition of Professor Abbey’s groundbreaking work and will enable him to progress his research in this important field,” Professor Dodds said.

The NHMRC Investigator Grant is specifically designed for researchers at all career stages, supporting research across the four pillars of health and medical research (biomedical, clinical, public health and health services research and allows flexibility for investigators to pursue new research directions, foster innovative and creative research, create opportunities and reduce application and peer review burden on researchers.

In addition, three La Trobe teams have received $3.25 million in 2023 NHMRC Ideas Grants.

  • Dr Kazuhide Shaun Okuda

    Project: Cellular signalling and growth control in vascular development and lymphatic malformations

    Excessive lymphatic vessel growth leads to childhood lymphatic malformations. There is an urgent unmet need for new and effective therapies for these patients. It was recently found that Ddx21 and ribosome biogenesis are selectively required for lymphatic growth. This Ideas Grant will explore the mechanisms that drive this selectivity and test if DDX21 and ribosome biogenesis can be new therapeutic targets for childhood lymphatic malformations.

  • Associate Professor Yuning Hong and Professor Paul Fisher

    Project: Using novel chemical probes to identify damaged proteins as new biomarkers for Parkinson’s disease

    More than 80,000 Australians are affected by Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder, and there is a pressing need to develop reliable, easy-to-access biomarkers for early diagnosis to enable effective treatment. This project aims to leverage cutting-edge technology to generate ‘molecular signatures’ of dysfunctional proteins that are unique in blood cells from individuals with Parkinson’s disease, enabling translation for a blood test aiding in early Parkinson’s disease diagnosis and drug evaluation.

  • Dr Conor Kearney, Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute and the La Trobe University School of Cancer Medicine (with Dr Stephin Vervoort, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, WEHI)

    Project: Discovery and targeting of novel immune checkpoints in cancer

    The human immune system is capable of recognising and eliminating cells that have become cancerous. Cancer Immunotherapies have revolutionized medical oncology and are now recognised as one of the core pillars of cancer treatment. Despite the success of immunotherapies, responses are limited to a subgroup of patients in particular cancer types and patients frequently relapse. This project aims to identify new druggable targets that improve current immunotherapies.

Notably, Professor Andrew Scott AM, Co-Director of the Centre for Research Excellence in Brain Cancer at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute has also received a $1.2 million NHMRC Development Grant, which will fund studies for the development of a new treatment for cancer patients that is tumour specific, less likely to have side effects, and more effective in treating cancer.

La Trobe University Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Dodds, said these projects are uncovering groundbreaking research for a healthier Australia.

“These grants reflect the high calibre of research at La Trobe, making a real difference to the lives of Australians and communities worldwide,” Professor Dodds said.

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