NHMRC Excellence Awards 2011-12

Outstanding Contribution Award

Mrs Elizabeth Grant AM

The 2011 NHMRC Outstanding Contribution Award recognises outstanding long-term contribution, individual commitment and support to NHMRC in its 75th Anniversary year. Mrs Grant has been integral in the shaping of Australian medical research policy. Her involvement with NHMRC began in 1982 when she was appointed as 'Eminent Laywoman' representative on the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). She has served on many NHMRC committees and panels, including the Medical Research Ethics Committee, Medical Research Committee, Special Purposes Committee, Dental Standing Committee, Observers Panel, and as Chair of the Animal Welfare Committee. For the past six years she has also been chair of the Council on the Ageing (ACT) and sits on the council’s national board.

Ethics Award

The NHMRC Ethics Award recognises outstanding Australians for their contributions to high ethical standards in health and medical research. Nominees are judged on the significance of their contribution supporting high ethical standards in Australia in health and/or health and medical research, including innovation in ethical policy formulation, leadership in the formulation of ethical standards and/or services above and beyond the normal requirement of Human Research Ethics Committee or Committee membership.

Dr Kerry Breen AM

Dr Kerry Breen is made a long term contribution to ethics, medical law and proper administrative process. He has served NHMRC in numerous ways:

2007-current Commissioner of Complaints, NHMRC
2011-current Member, Australian Research Integrity Committee
1997-2000 Member of Australian Health Ethics Committee
2003- 2004 Member, NHMRC Embryo Research Licensing Committee
2000- 2006 Chairman, Australian Health Ethics Committee
2000-2006 Member of Council of the NHMRC

In his work with NHMRC, he has assisted or led in the development on ethical guidance for xenotransplantation, ethical research in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, ethical guidance on artificial reproductive technology and the 2003-05 revision of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans. Dr Breen has served with distinction in his gastroenterology specialty, in Royal Australian College of Physicians, in medical education and medical regulation. He has co-authored or co-edited books on law and medical regulation, including most recently Good Medical Practice: Professionalism, Ethics and Law in 2010. In 2007, Dr Breen became a Member of the Order of Australia for his service to medicine through the advancement of medical ethics and professional standards of training and practice to the speciality of gastroenterology as a clinician and teacher.

Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowships

NHMRC Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowships recognise one of Australia’s Nobel Laureates, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn.

The Elizabeth Blackburn Fellowships were established to promote and foster the career development of female researchers and are awarded annually to the highest ranked female applicant in each of the biomedical, clinical, health services and public health pillars of the Research Fellowship scheme.

Recipients of this award will form an advisory group for NHMRC with a special focus for women in science.

Professor Carola Vinuesa

Australian National University John Curtin School of Medical Research

Scientific summary: Together, autoimmune diseases affect over 5% of the population and are amongst the leading causes of mortality in young and middle aged women. A subset of T cells known as follicular helper (Tfh) T cells are essential for protective memory antibody responses but when dysregulated can cause autoimmunity.

Over the last 5 years Professor Vinuesa has contributed in important ways to the characterisation of this T helper cell subset and the recognition that regulation of these cells is critical for normal and not pathological antibody formation. This new research aims to decipher the cellular and molecular layers of Tfh cell regulation.

This work will be complemented by translational studies investigating the genetic causes of human pathology caused by Tfh overactivity, focusing on systemic lupus erythematosus patients with high circulating Tfh cells and on patients with angioimmunoblastic T‑cell lymphoma. Professor Vinuesa’s research discoveries will illuminate novel drug targets for these diseases and help generate more potent vaccines.

Associate Professor Christine Roberts

University of Sydney

Scientific Summary: Every year in Australia, an estimated 23 mothers die during pregnancy or childbirth, 4,900 suffer a life-threatening morbidity, 19,000 suffer preeclampsia and 31,350 an obstetric haemorrhage. For infants, 22,000 are born preterm, 14,300 are growth restricted, >7,000 are admitted to neonatal intensive care and there are ~2,300 perinatal deaths.

Adverse infant outcomes are also associated with increased childhood morbidity including diabetes, reduced immunity and susceptibility to infection, asthma, cancer, cerebral palsy and neurological dysfunction. Long term outcomes such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, insulin resistance and cancers in adult life have also been implicated.

Associate Professor Roberts’ vision for the next 5 years is that pregnant women and babies have the best possible outcomes supported by optimal maternity care services. To achieve this she will build and extend the achievements of her current Fellowship and continue to lead one of the most experienced groups of researchers in the use of complexly linked perinatal population data.

Her vision capitalises on her research group being co-located with a tertiary maternity hospital, a state pregnancy screening laboratory and the research laboratories of the Kolling Institute of Medical Research, plus involvement in international clinical trials and international data linkage networks and strong links with state and national clinicians and policy-makers that enables research translation.

Associate Professor Amanda Leach

Menzies School of Research

Scientific Summary: In the Northern Territory, about twenty per cent of Indigenous children have perforated ear drums (chronic suppurative otitis media). Research at the Menzies School of Health Research already shows that medical treatments in high-risk Indigenous settings are less effective than in non-Indigenous settings. Parallel molecular microbiology research indicates that poor therapeutic responses are likely due to the early age of dense colonisation by multiple bacterial pathogens. A vicious cycle of early infection is driven by poor housing, overcrowding, persistent nasal discharge and hand contamination.

Associate Professor Amanda Leach’s Fellowship will focus on otitis media prevention. The evidence for effective interventions for protecting high risk infants from infection will be reviewed, barriers and enablers in that process identified, and appropriate research methodologies applied to design, pilot and develop an intervention program that will be acceptable and have a high probability of being effective in raising healthy babies, with healthy ears, in remote Indigenous communities.

After broad consultation and pilot work, the preferred intervention will be evaluated in a randomised clinical trial with rigorous methodologies and clinical, biomarker and behavioural outcomes.

Outputs will include publication of clinical, biological and behavioural effect sizes, a cost benefit analysis will be undertaken with implications for policy, practice and research reported to all stakeholders.

Frank Fenner Early Career Fellowships

Dr Thomas (Tom) Snelling

Sydney Children’s Hospital

Scientific Summary: Applying active hospital-based case ascertainment to assess vaccine effectiveness and safety

Australia makes a considerable investment in vaccination, and the public are entitled to expect that vaccines are both safe and effective. The growing complexity of the vaccine schedule requires the development of new and flexible systems to monitor vaccine performance. This project aims to do this using surveillance nurses embedded in children's hospitals to actively find cases of diseases which are potentially vaccine-preventable as well as those which might have occurred as a side effect of vaccination.

Ms Robyn Marsh

Menzies School of Health Research, Charles Darwin University

Scientific Summary: Culture-independent assessment of the microbiota underlying chronic suppurative lung disease in Indigenous children

Chronic suppurative lung disease (CSLD) affects 1 in 68 Indigenous children in the Northern Territory. The condition leads to loss of lung function which reduces life-expectancy. Little is known about microbial factors underlying the disease.

My research uses DNA-based methods to describe lower airway microbiology of CSLD affecting Indigenous children, including investigation of bacteria, viruses and biofilm. Better understanding of the microbiology will potentially lead to development of improved treatments.

Marshall and Warren Award

The Marshall and Warren Award recognises the best highly innovative and potentially transformative grant from among all the applications nominated for this award in the 2011 Project Grants funding round. The nominees are selected by each Grant Review Panel assessing Project Grant Applications, with the final award selected by the NHMRC Research Committee.

The award is named after Nobel Laurates Professors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.

Dr Graham Neely

The Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Scientific Summary: Pain systems analysis highlights PI3K gamma as a candidate regulator of nociception

Associate Investigators: Adam Cole, Clifford Woolf, Emilio Hirsch, Michaela Kress
Technical Support: Qiao-Ping Wang, Yagiz Alp Aksoy

This grant describes a Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) model for studying “pain”, and a new bioinformatics analysis based on our Drosophila screening data, which predicts hundreds of genes and pathways to play a role in pain perception. The research is underpinned by the common mechanism and conserved biology of “pain” perception between humans and the fruit fly.

The researchers have pinpointed a candidate human pain gene [PI3Kγ – see Note 1] and small molecules that block this gene exist. This research will evaluate the role and mechanism of action of PI3Kγ in mammalian pain perception and chronic pain diseases, including an attempt to intervene in the development and persistence of chronic pain using PI3Kγ inhibitors. The innate heat avoidance behaviour in Drosophila will be used as a means of rapidly screening potential therapeutics.

Achievement Award – Top Ranked Project Grant

The 2011 Project Grant Achievement Award recognises the top ranked Project Grant in the 2011 Project Grants funding round recognised through a competitive peer review process.

The Project Grant scheme aims to fund research leading to improved health of all Australians. To achieve this aim the scheme provides support for projects with the following attributes:

  • Investigator-initiated research across all fields of research, from basic research through to research in clinical and community settings, relevant to health; and
  • Single investigators or small teams of researchers (usually up to 6 investigators) and early career researchers (new investigators).

Grant applications are peer reviewed against three criteria (scientific merit – 50%, Innovation – 25% and track record – 25%).

Professor Paul Keall

University of Sydney

Scientific Summary: The development and investigation of respiratory-modulated four-dimensional cone beam CT imaging

Associate Investigators: Benjamin Cooper, David Ball, David Levy, Geoffrey Hugo, Jeffrey Williamson

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Better targeted radiotherapy will improve treatment outcomes: an increase in tumour dose (1 Gray) that results in a 4% improvement in survival and lowering the total lung dose by the same amount results in a 2% reduction in pneumonitis. To achieve tumour dose increase and lung dose decrease, image-guided radiotherapy methods need to be improved.

In the current image-guidance method to account for lung cancer motion during each treatment session there is no communication between the respiratory signal and image acquisition. This results in poor image quality which limits its clinical utility. To overcome this problem, the research aims to develop a system where the respiratory signal actively controls image acquisition resulting in an estimated 3-fold improvement in image quality.

Successful completion of this research will improve the science and clinical practice of lung cancer radiotherapy and ensure that Australia is at the forefront of technological developments and improvements in cancer treatment worldwide.

Achievement Award – Top Ranked Research Fellowship

The 2011 Research Fellowship Achievement Award recognises the top ranked Research Fellowship in the 2011 Research Fellowship

Professor Alan Cowman

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, University of Melbourne

Scientific Summary: Understanding the pathogenesis of malaria

We will investigate malaria, a parasitic disease that kills over 2 million people a year. We will explore how the parasite identifies, invades and remodels the host cells in which it lives, scavenging nutrients and hiding from the immune system. We will characterize the proteins involved in these critical events, as they are potential targets for drugs and vaccines. We will study how parasites cause disease and how the host responds to infection.

Achievement Award – Top Ranked Practitioner Fellowship

The 2011 Practitioner Fellowship Achievement Award recognises the top ranked Practitioner Fellowship in the 2011 Practitioner Fellowship funding round.

The Practitioner Fellowships Scheme is intended for active clinicians and public health or health services professionals to undertake research that is linked to their practice or policy. The Scheme may support clinicians in developing a career that includes successful research.

Practitioner Fellowships are open to all active clinicians in Australia who have a sustained track record of significant research output as demonstrated in peer-reviewed literature, and a strong commitment to quality research outputs as judged relative to opportunity.

Professor Henry Krum

Monash University/Alfred Hospital

Scientific Summary: Heart failure (HF) describes where the heart cannot pump adequately to meet the body’s needs. Mortality remains high; therefore, there is an urgent need for new treatment approaches. The present grant aims to: (1) evaluate treatments for patients at high-risk for future development of HF (2) examine the ability to safely withdraw unnecessary HF drugs (3) focus on the effect of HF on the kidney via novel treatment strategies (4) examine the emerging role of cancer drugs in development of HF.

Career Development Fellowships

The Career Development Fellowships (CDF) scheme aims to further develop Australian health and medical researchers early in their career.

It will enable investigators to establish themselves as independent, self-directed researchers; expand capacity for biomedical, clinical, public health and health service delivery research, and for evidence-based policy development in Australian health systems; and encourage the translation of research outcomes into practice.

There are two levels of award, for 2-7 years postdoctoral experience and for 7-12 years.

Achievement Award – Biomedical CDF Level 1

Dr Andreas Fouras

Monash University

Scientific Summary: Functional Imaging Enables New Perspectives on Disease

Our ability to reduce the burden of disease is critically limited by our incapacity to image dynamic processes at the heart of those diseases. This application brings completely new capabilities to overcome this shortcoming and hence form new perspectives on several important medical problems that each result in alterations to dynamic processes: asthma, neonatal ventilation and cystic fibrosis within respiratory medicine and atherosclerosis and diabetes within cardiovascular medicine.

Achievement Award – Biomedical Level 2

Dr Katherine Kedzierska

University of Melbourne

Scientific Summary: Generation and persistence of effective T cell immunity towards seasonal and pandemic influenza viruses

Introduction of a new influenza strain into human circulation leads to a rapid global spread of the virus (e.g. H1N1 2009 pandemic) due to minimal antibody immunity. Established T cell immunity towards conserved viral regions promotes rapid recovery. However, it is unclear what determines the effective T cell immunity towards influenza. We will define the optimal human T cell populations, with the ultimate goal of improving vaccine design so it protects against seasonal and pandemic strains.

Achievement Award – Clinical Level 1

Associate Professor Kiarash Khosrotehrani

University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research

Scientific Summary: Stem and progenitor cell contribution to skin wounds and homeostasis

Skin wounds represent a major health and economic burden. Although skin stem cells have been used routinely for the treatment of wounds, they cannot reconstitute a fully functional skin given the complexity and the many cell types usually involved in wound healing. In this project, we intend to evaluate the role of different cell populations on modulating skin wound healing to produce more regeneration and less scaring.

Achievement Award – Clinical Level 2

Associate Professor Murat Yucel

University of Melbourne

Scientific summary: Probing the neural, psychological, and pharmacological underpinnings of impulsivity and compulsivity

An inability to resist a temptation or repeated failures of self-regulation can lead to 'impulsive' and 'compulsive' behaviours that relate to a host of personal and social problems (eg., excessive eating, gambling, and substance use). Despite this, very little research has studied the neural and psychological underpinnings of these behaviours. My research will take advantage of recent innovations and approaches to fill this void and have implications for diagnosis and treatment.

Achievement Award – Industry Level 1

Dr Kim Delbaere

Neuroscience Research Australia

Scientific summary: Innovative approaches to implement falls prevention strategies in older people

The overall aim is to reduce the number of falls and improve the quality of life of older citizens while containing the burden on carers and on the healthcare system. The project will combine research and technology, by partnering with Philips Research. It will follow three main streams, i.e. translation into practice using an “Information and Communication Technology” (ICT) approach, and finally implementation and dissemination.

Achievement Award – Population Health Level 1

Associate Professor Tanya Chikritzhs

Curtin University

Scientific Summary: Alcohol: monitoring and policy evaluation

Alcohol-related harm is a major contributor to the total burden of disease and social problems experienced both globally and in Australia. Considerable burden is placed on health and policing sectors and at substantial financial cost. This project will significantly improve Australian capacity to monitor alcohol related harms at local, state and national levels, enhance the underlying epidemiology and understanding of relations between alcohol and harm and enable reliable and timely evaluation of alcohol policy.

Achievement Award – Population Health Level 2

Professor Jo Salmon

Deakin University

Scientific Summary: Innovative methods for assessing and intervening on children’s sedentary behaviour and health

Very little is known about the independent health consequences of time spent sitting among children. This is in part because of the challenges of assessing these behaviours. In addition, evidence of the effectiveness of strategies to reduce children’s sitting time is lacking. This fellowship will use cutting-edge techniques to objectively assess children’s sitting time and will also examine the effectiveness of interventions to reduce sitting time and promote health.

Achievement Award – Industry Level 2

Dr Ingrid Winkler

Mater Medical Research Institute

Scientific Summary: Manipulation of haematopoietic stem cell niches to improve therapeutic outcomes

My aim is to understand how stem cells are naturally regulated by the body. My central hypothesis is that local environment (niche) factors largely govern stem cell behaviour. Identification and manipulation of these factors will offer a novel therapeutic opportunity to improve the clinical use of normal haematopoietic stem cells to improve transplantation success, as well as sensitise leukaemia cells to chemotherapy.