UniSA researchers win $15m in NHMRC grants to address some of society’s biggest health challenges

Research to find solutions to some of Australia’s biggest challenges in health feature in the University of South Australia‘s latest National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator and Ideas research grants, collectively valued at around $15 million.


The successful UniSA researchers are:

Professor Elina Hypponen ($2.9 million)

Transforming nutritional epidemiology research: A fresh look on diet and brain health

“Nutrition is a challenging area of research, and too often we hear advice that can come across as contradictory,” Prof Hypponen says.

“This is because evidence for the role of diet on health commonly relies on observational studies, as randomised controlled trials are not always feasible for ethical or other reasons. My approach combines methods from epidemiology, statistical genetics, and machine learning, and in the next five years I will aim to bring together different approaches to strengthen the evidence for the role of diet on health.

“At the first stage, I will focus on brain health and dementia risk, but effectively, the same approaches will apply across the range of chronic conditions, including cancer and other diseases.”

Professor Gillian Caughey ($2.37 million)

Harnessing real-world data to drive high quality care for Australia’s aged care population

“The Aged Care Royal Commission recommended urgent action to improve the quality and safety of care for our older population receiving aged care,” Prof Caughey says.

“My research aims to inform the best ways to provide high-quality, person-centred care using a national aged care and health care data platform, the Registry of Senior Australians.

“The evidence will inform policy and, importantly, improvements in care delivery, to improve the health and well-being of Australia’s aged care population.”

Professor Natasha Harvey ($1.6 million)

Defining the genetic and developmental basis of human lymphatic vascular disease

“Lymphatic vessels play crucial roles in development and disease by controlling tissue fluid balance, directing immune cell traffic and absorbing dietary lipids,” Prof Harvey says.

“Defects in the construction of lymphatic vessels underlie human disorders including lymphatic malformations and primary lymphoedema.

“The goal of this application is to define the genes and developmental events underlying lymphatic disorders so that new therapeutic agents for the treatment of these complex disorders can be developed.”

Dr Janette Kazenwadel ($662,000)

Characterising haemogenic endothelial cell potential in the lymphatic vasculature

“The current understanding is that all blood cells are produced from a rare population of stem cells initially arising from the walls of blood vessels during embryonic development,” Dr Kazenwadel says.

“We made a groundbreaking discovery that cells lining lymphatic vessels also have the capacity to produce blood cells.

“My research will translate this game-changing finding to define how and when lymphatic vessels produce blood. This may prove valuable in situations of anaemia, infection, immunity and potentially cancer.”


The successful UniSA researchers are:

Dr Gokhan Cildir ($822,458)

Elucidating the function of a novel regulator of IgE-mediated mast cell activation and chronic spontaneous urticaria development

“Chronic spontaneous urticaria (CSU) is a common skin disease caused by the uncontrolled activation of tissue-resident mast cells. Genetic factors underlying CSU are unknown.

“We identified a novel genetic association between an uncharacterised gene and CSU, and revealed this gene to be a critical regulator of immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated mast cell activation.

“In this project, we will seek to explain its role in mast cells to better understand and treat CSU and angioedema.”

Dr Tessa Gargett ($1.14 million)

Micro-targeting IL-2 delivery to remodel the glioblastoma microenvironment

“The diagnosis of a brain tumour is devastating for the patient, their family and their doctors because these aggressive tumours have limited treatment options and extremely poor survival rates, with the worst types being universally fatal.

“Fortunately we are in the midst of a technological revolution when it comes to medical science. This project will take the very latest developments in cell and gene therapy and apply them to the challenge of treating brain cancer.”

Professor Hannah Keage ($1.22 million)

Predicting delirium vulnerability from pre-surgery neurophysiological measures

“Delirium is a sudden impairment in thinking skills, that comes and goes, and is common after surgery – affecting 25-30% of patients.

“Older adults who develop delirium have a reduced life expectancy and are more likely to develop dementia. We don’t know why some older adults develop delirium after surgery and others do not.

“Our study will identify patterns of brain activity associated with an increased delirium risk, which will ultimately improve care and enable prevention efforts to be targeted.”

Professor Leanne Dibbens ($1.37 million)

Identifying new and personalised treatments for KCNT1 neurological disorders using pharmacogenetics

“KCNT1 mutations cause severe seizures and early death and there are currently no treatments. We identified four novel FDA approved drugs which inhibit the effects of three KCNT1 patient mutations.

“This project will investigate the ability of these four drugs to counteract effects of 24 different KCNT1 patient mutations in animal models.

“Our findings will accelerate novel off-label use of these four FDA approved drugs to treat patients with KCNT1- neurological disorders.”

Dr Sophie Wiszniak ($724,147)

Neural crest cells as modulators of Wnt signalling in heart development and congenital cardiac outflow tract defects

“Congenital heart defects are extremely common due to the complex nature of heart formation, and the multiple cell types involved.

“Neural crest cells are a type of cell that contributes to the heart, yet their involvement in congenital heart defects may be under-appreciated.

“We will assess new roles for neural crest cells in modulating cell to cell signalling events to underpin correct heart development, as well as how these signalling mechanisms are disrupted to cause congenital heart defects.”

Dr Guillermo Gomez ($2.12 million)

Harnessing an unexpected new role of the CD47:SIRPA axis to target glioblastoma invasion

“This project will investigate how brain tumour cells reprogram to invade the surrounding healthy brain tissue and suppress immune activity.

“Our results will lay the foundations for new treatments for brain cancer that reduce tumour cell invasion and facilitate immunotherapy.”

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