Australia and Singapore Join Forces to Tackle Emerging Infectious Diseases

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Summary media release information

10 April 2013
NHMRC Media Release
Contact for further information: 

NHMRC Media Team: 0422 008 512

Five research teams in Australia and Singapore awarded A*STAR-NHMRC joint grants to design ways to combat disease-causing bugs

The fight against a number of significant infectious diseases in the Asia-Pacific region has been given a boost through a new research collaboration between the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia (NHMRC) and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore.

Joint funding of $3.5 million (S$4.5 million) will support five research teams based in Australia and Singapore working on research projects that will address infectious diseases including tuberculosis and influenza.

These emerging diseases were discussed as significant threats to public health in the Asia Pacific region at the A*STAR NHMRC Joint Symposium 2012 on Combating Emerging Infectious Diseases through Integrative Technology Approaches held last year.1

“Infectious diseases affect the health and productivity of hundreds and thousands of people in Australia and around the region each year. This collaboration demonstrates Australia’s capacity to join other world-leading research bodies and achieve much more than if countries tried to tackle these issues individually,” NHMRC CEO, Professor Warwick Anderson said.

“The theme of infectious diseases is a topical and timely one. Our experience in the past decade with SARS, avian flu and H1N1 has taught us that in an increasingly connected world, understanding and managing emerging infectious diseases are a matter of highest priority for all countries. By partnering with our colleagues from Australia, we will be able to develop new approaches to better combat these threats to this region and the world,” A*STAR Chairman, Mr Lim Chuan Poh said.

Tuberculosis (TB) is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent. Multi-drug resistant TB is present in virtually all countries.

Dr Sarah Dunstan of the University of Melbourne and Associate Professor Teo Yik Ying of the National University of Singapore (NUS) will receive $379,279 and S$477,580 to provide knowledge critical for the design of treatments and vaccines for tuberculosis.

“In working with our colleagues from Australia, we hope to demonstrate the capability that Singapore has in terms of using genomic technology to understand, to monitor, and ultimately to develop further treatments and effective healthcare policies for any infectious disease,” Associate Professor Teo said.

“Our project is important for the insights it will provide on how the host and the bacteria interact to cause TB disease. Understanding this interaction is crucial to drive developments in vaccine and drug design. With the ever-increasing connectivity between countries, new vaccines and therapeutics would not only greatly impact the control efforts in the TB high burden countries within our region, but also provide protection against TB resurfacing in Singapore and Australia due to travel and migration,” Dr Dunstan added.

Professor Jamie Rossjohn of Monash University and Dr Lucia Mori of A*STAR’s Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) will receive $329,673 and S$393,000 to develop new strategies targeting TB.

“Since 2007, the number of new reported TB cases in Singapore has increased by 22%, reaching 1,533 in 2011. The emergence of multi-drug-resistant TB is a serious public health challenge. Together with the Australian scientists, we are embarking on a multi-disciplinary approach to study how immune cells combat TB infection and develop new TB vaccines,” Dr Mori said.

“The project, forged from a strong Singapore-Australian alliance, will provide important biomedical insight into how lipid reactive T-cells play a role in combating TB infection,” Professor Rossjohn added.

About half of the world's population is now at risk of dengue. The infection causes flu-like illness, and occasionally develops into a potentially lethal complication. There is no vaccine.

Professor Cameron Simmons of University of Melbourne and Dr Khor Chiea Chuen of A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) will receive $304,673 and S$483,000 to work on predicting patients at risk of severe dengue.

“The funding of this project is very timely as it will help us understand more about the mechanisms of Dengue infection in this part of the world. Only by improving our understanding can we attempt to use the new knowledge to help patients,” Dr Khor said.

“Dengue is major public health problem across much of the tropical world and we’re delighted to be teaming with our colleagues in Singapore to address major knowledge gaps in understanding why some dengue patients develop severe, life-threatening complications,” Professor Simmons added.

Professor Ken Shortman of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and Dr Sylvie Alonso of the National University of Singapore (NUS) will receive $382,653 and S$445,200 to develop improved vaccines against virus diseases such as dengue, hand foot and mouth disease and influenza.

“This project is a true collaborative effort between two teams that bring together complementary expertises. This is a unique opportunity for us to contribute to cutting-edge vaccine technology and to support Singapore’s efforts in fighting against infectious diseases that represent a major public health threat to the Asia Pacific region,” Dr Alonso said.

“This project should initiate a fruitful collaboration between the basic research teams at the Walter and Eliza Hall and Burnet Institutes in Melbourne and the team at the National University of Singapore involved with development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. It represents an important step in bridging the gap between an exciting laboratory finding and its application to improved vaccines for human application. It will provide training and initiate collaboration between younger scientists in Singapore and Australia. It will assess if the new approach of targeting vaccines to dendritic cells can lead to improved vaccines against emerging infectious diseases,” Professor Shortman added.

Influenza occurs every year in every country, seasonally and sporadically, killing between 250,000 and 500,000 people and causing severe illness in several million more.

Dr Aeron Hurt of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory and Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh of A*STAR’s Bioinformatics Institute (BII) will receive $374,673 and S$406,620 to work on the provision of better treatments for patients with drug-resistant influenza viruses.

“This project is unique as it combines computational models and predictions with experimental testing which is a smart and cost-effective way of addressing critical healthcare questions,” Dr Maurer-Stroh said.

"The project outcomes will aid the Singaporean and Australian response to future influenza epidemics and pandemics, potentially saving many lives by enabling improved and appropriate use of the anti-influenza drugs," Dr Hurt added.

International Collaborations

In recognition of the importance of international collaborations in health and medical research, NHMRC has strengthened its international partnerships by being an active member of the Global Alliance for Chronic Disease (GACD), the Heads of International (Biomedical) Research Organisations (HIROs), the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) and the Californian Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

A*STAR has close collaborations with the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) on infectious diseases, the New Zealand Health Research Council (HRC) on cancer and cardiovascular disorders, the China Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) on cancer, metabolism and obesity, and with EMBO on promoting scientific exchanges with European laboratories across different fields in molecular biology.


A*STAR-NHMRC Joint Funding Project Details

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National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

David Cooper

Media Team

DID: +61 422 008 512


Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

Dr Sarah Chang

Corporate Communications

DID: +65 6826 6442


About the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

The National Health and Medical Research Council is Australia's peak body for supporting health and medical research; for developing health advice for the Australian community, health professionals and governments; and for providing advice on ethical behaviour in health care and in the conduct of health and medical research.

In 2012, NHMRC announced over $780 million funding for health and medical research.

Further information:

About the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is Singapore's lead public sector agency that fosters world-class scientific research and talent to drive economic growth and transform Singapore into a vibrant knowledge-based and innovation driven economy.

In line with its mission-oriented mandate, A*STAR spearheads research and development in fields that are essential to growing Singapore’s manufacturing sector and catalysing new growth industries. A*STAR supports these economic clusters by providing intellectual, human and industrial capital to its partners in industry.

A*STAR oversees 20 biomedical sciences and physical sciences and engineering research entities, located in Biopolis and Fusionopolis as well as their vicinity. These two RandD hubs house a bustling and diverse community of local and international research scientists and engineers from A*STAR’s research entities as well as a growing number of corporate laboratories.

Further information:

A*STAR-NHMRC Joint Funding Project Details

NHMRC will fund $1.8 million (S$2.3 million) while A*STAR will fund $1.7 million (S$2.2 million):

Research title: Interaction between the host and pathogen genetics in susceptibility to pulmonary tuberculosis
Research description: People infected with the bacteria causing tuberculosis (TB) have different clinical fates. Some people remain well with dormant infections; some get lung disease and survive, while others die. The research team are investigating the interplay between the human host and the bacteria causing disease by identifying genetic variants in both to determine what is important in the defence against this disease. Knowledge of the different TB disease processes is critical for future rational design of new TB vaccines and treatments.
Administering Institutions: National University of Singapore and University of Melbourne
Funding amounts: S$477,580 $379,279
Chief investigators: Associate Professor Yik Ying Teo (Singaporean Lead)National University of Singapore Dr Sarah Dunstan (Australian Lead) University of Melbourne
Other chief investigators: Dr Chiea Chuen Khor

Associate Professor Martin Hibberd

Dr Maxine Caws

Dr Michael Inouye

Dr Kathryn Hol

Genome Institute of Singapore

Genome Institute of Singapore

Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, Vietnam

University of Melbourne

University of Melbourne

Research title: Effectiveness of neuraminidase inhibitors against drug-resistant influenza viruses
Research description: Currently, the neuraminidase inhibitors are the only drugs that are effective against seasonal influenza viruses. However, viruses can develop resistance to these drugs. Using viruses with varied levels of resistance, the project will determine the effectiveness of different drug treatments in animal models. This can lead to better treatment for those patients seriously ill with drug-resistant influenza viruses.
Administering Institutions: Bioinformatics Institute and Melbourne Health
Funding amounts: S$406,620 $374,673
Chief investigators: Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh (Singaporean Lead) - Bioinformatics Institute Dr Aeron Hurt (Australian Lead) - Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory
Other chief investigators: Associate Professor Veronika von Messling

Professor Carl Kirkpatrick

Dr Ian Barr
Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore

Monash University

Melbourne Health
Research title: Harnessing lipid-reactive immunity to combat mycobacterium tuberculosis infection
Research description: Critical to the survival of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the causative agent of tuberculosis (TB) is its unique waxy (lipid)-rich cell wall. This proposal aims to target components of its cell wall to develop novel therapeutic strategies. Specifically, the Australian-Singapore alliance will examine how the immune system "sees" lipid based antigens from M. tuberculosis, and then will ultimately use this information towards the development of novel lipid-based vaccines.
Administering Institutions: Singapore Immunology Network and Monash University
Funding amounts: S$393,000 $329,673
Chief investigators:

Dr Lucia Mori (Singaporean Lead)

Singapore Immunology Network

Professor Jamie Rossjohn (Australian Lead)

Monash University

Other chief investigators: Professor Dale Godfrey

Professor Gennaro De Libero
University of Melbourne

Singapore Immunology Network
Research title: Targeting dendritic cells to boost vaccines against dengue, hand foot and mouth disease and influenza
Research description: Australian and Singapore laboratories will collaborate to develop improved vaccines against virus diseases, particularly dengue, hand foot and mouth disease and influenza. A novel technology will be used, the targeting of vaccines to a receptor on the surface of the dendritic cells that control immune responses. This will be used to boost responses to a series of vaccine candidates that are otherwise insufficiently immunogenic.
Administering Institutions: National University of Singapore and The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
Funding amounts: S$445,200 $382,653
Chief investigators: Dr Sylvie Alonso (Singaporean Lead) National University of Singapore

Professor Ken Shortman (Australian Lead)

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Other chief investigators: Dr Mireille Lahoud

Associate Professor Paul MacAry
The Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health

National University of Singapore
Research title: Prognostic genetic markers of severe dengue
Research description: Dengue is a viral infection that is transmitted by mosquitoes in tropical regions of the world, including in northern Australia. For doctors who treat dengue patients, a major unmet need is the ability to predict which patients will develop severe complications and need highly specialized supportive care. This proposal will seek to address this unmet need by examining whether markers of human genetic variation can be used to predict those patients at risk of severe dengue.
Administering Institutions: Genome Institute of Singapore and University of Melbourne
Funding amounts: S$483,000 $304,673
Chief investigators: Dr Chiea Chuen Khor (Singaporean Lead)

Genome Institute of Singapore

Professor Cameron Simmons (Australian Lead)

University of Melbourne

Other chief investigators: Associate Professor Martin Hibberd

Associate Professor Andrew Brooks
Genome Institute of Singapore

University of Melbourne

1 Singapore and Australia team up to focus research efforts on emerging infectious diseases