UNSW Sydney researchers have secured more than $20 million in the latest round of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ideas and Development Grant scheme funding.

Developing biological therapeutics for the treatment of addiction, preventing AIDS in Papua New Guinea, and providing cutting-edge treatment of leukaemia, are a few of the innovative UNSW research projects to receive grants.

The Minister for Health and Aged Care, Mark Butler, announced $268 million to support 232 projects funded through the NHMRC Ideas Grant scheme. The scheme supports innovative research projects and provides opportunities for early and mid-career researchers.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research & Enterprise, Professor Nicholas Fisk congratulated all the UNSW researchers on their success.

“I’m extremely proud of all these UNSW researchers awarded NHMRC funding and wish them the very best in achieving their research project goals.

“Their research ranges from developing new and cutting-edge approaches for the treatment of paediatric cancer, childhood leukaemia and assisting in the elimination of AIDS in Papua New Guinea,” Prof. Fisk said.

Development grants: commercialising innovative research

Two UNSW researchers have secured $2,267,434 in NHMRC Development Grants to develop a solid tumour treatment and improve the gait of people with Parkinson’s. The NHMRC’s Development Grant Scheme is designed to support the translation of proof-of-concept research into commercial outcomes.

Professor Ian Street, Director of Therapeutic Innovations for Kids at the Children’s Cancer Institute has been awarded $1,294,576 to develop Methyltransferase like protein 5 Inhibitors (METTL5) to treat solid tumours in children and adults.

Dr Matthew Brodie and a team of UNSW biomedical engineers, allied foundations, companies, and institutions have been awarded a $972,858 to develop a device to improve the walking ability and quality of life of those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Titled ‘Helping five million people with Parkinson’s disease walk’, the grant will enable the team to advance beyond a prototype device developed in conjunction with the free Walking Tall App, to reduce the negative consequences of the disease.

Ideas Grant scheme to support innovative research

Richard Lock at UNSW Medicine and Health has received $1,657,400 for a three-year project focusing on ‘Molecular Characterisation of Relapse-Initiating Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia Cells for Targeted Therapy.” Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia remains the most common childhood cancer and when children relapse there are limited treatment options. This project will use single cell approaches to characterise the ‘measurable residual disease’ cells that remain after chemotherapy to understand how they avoid cell death. Prof. Lock has also received $888,649 for developing an antibody-drug for the treatment of a high-risk leukaemia in adults and children.

Associate Professor Paul Ekert from UNSW Medicine & Health has received $1,332,440 for his research in ‘recovering lost therapeutic opportunities in high-risk paediatric cancer’. A/Prof. Ekert’s research explores the biology of oncogenic lesions that drive paediatric cancer, with a goal of generating model systems which can explore the functional molecular basis of cancer-related mutations, and to identify better targeted ways to treat these. 

“This Ideas Grant gives us the opportunity to turn the discoveries of changes in the genes of cancer cells into new therapeutic opportunities for families and their doctors. We are part of the ZERO Childhood Cancer Program and our goal is to discover how novel changes in certain genes in cancer cause the disease, and how we can target treatments at those targets,” Prof. Ekert said.

Read more: UNSW researchers receive more than $16m in Ideas Grants

Dr Karly Turner from UNSW Science has received $1,327,679 to study the brain circuits behind obsessions and compulsive behaviour. Her team has developed a new approach to studying obsessions by investigating the brain circuits involved when decisions are based on inference or imagined consequences, rather than experience.

“This funding will allow us to use the latest technology in neuroscience to better understand symptoms of mental health disorders. Fundamental research is critical for developing the new pieces of knowledge that are needed to seed innovations in treatment and care. We are very excited about the discoveries that lay ahead of us,” Dr. Turner said.

Scientia Associate Professor Angela Kelly-Hanku from the Kirby Institute has received $1,262,212 for a novel project on ending AIDS in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Her work builds on more than 15 years’ work using interdisciplinary research with communities most affected by HIV to design innovative, timely, and impactful programs. Prof. Kelly-Hanku and her team will undertake implementation research to co-design, implement, and evaluate community-centred and community-led approaches for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B prevention and testing in two high burden areas of PNG.

“PNG has the highest burden of HIV in the Pacific. It also has one of the highest rates of vertical transmission of HIV coupled with very low rates of antenatal attendance and HIV testing of pregnant women. Communities are one of PNG’s greatest strengths and in this project, we will work with them to co-design and deliver community-led services to reach those who do not engage in facility-based services,” A/ Prof. Kelly-Hanku said.

The other UNSW recipients are:

Associate Professor Fabio Luciani at UNSW Medicine & Health has received $1,094,640 for ‘Harnessing Pathogenic Immune Cells to Develop a New Diagnostic for Non-Responders and Refractory Conditions in Celiac Disease'. This project will investigate the role of immune cells in people with coeliac disease that do not respond to gluten free diet, using an innovative single cell genomics approach.

Dr Joanna Achinger-Kawecka at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and UNSW Medicine & Health has received $1,090,079 for ‘Assessing the role of the tumour ecosystem in epigenetic therapy response in ER+ endocrine-resistant breast cancer'. Dr Kawecka’s research is investigating whether targeting the epigenome, the layer of instructions that organises and regulates DNA’s activity, could re-sensitise treatment-resistant breast cancers.

Professor Ewa Goldys at UNSW Engineering has received $1,144,608 for ‘Low-cost biosensors for liquid biopsies: towards practical implementation of precision oncology'.

Professor Jamie Vandenberg at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and UNSW Medicine & Health has received $1,106,906 for ‘HERG Modulators: A new approach to anti-arrhythmic therapy.'

Professor Beng Chong at UNSW Medicine & Health has received $1,076,138 for ‘Immuno-thromboses that kill and maim: Pathogenesis and novel treatments'.

Dr Lucy Coupland at UNSW Medicine & Health has been awarded $1,019,993 for ‘Fibrinolysis Resistance in the Critically Ill: Rapid Detection, Characterisation and Treatment Discovery'.

Dr Kelly Clemens at UNSW Science has received $873,018 for Protecting the Unborn: Investigating Sodium Butyrate as a Treatment for Prenatal Opioid Exposure and Its Long-Term Effect. Dr Clemens has also received $853,056 for ‘Next generation biological therapeutics for the treatment of addiction'.

Professor Eva Kimonis at UNSW Science has received $369,019 for ‘Using novel naturalistic eye tracking technologies to uncover emotional attention mechanisms underpinning early-onset, treatment-resistant conduct disorders'.

Associate Professor Emma Sierecki at UNSW Medicine & Health has received $835,804 for ‘Strainotyping Synuclein aggregates in diseases'.

Associate Professor Jai Tree at UNSW Science has received $779,186 for ‘Enhancing antisense RNA antibiotics using aptamers that trigger RNA decay'.

Dr Fatima Mora at UNSW Medicine & Health has received $708,692 for ‘Leveraging H3K27M vulnerabilities for targeted epigenetic therapy in Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma'.

Dr Jay Betran-Gonza at UNSW Science has received $652,756 for ‘Tuning neural circuits to suppress resurgence of unwanted behaviour'.

Dr David Herrmann at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and UNSW Medicine & Health has received $599,853 for ‘Targeting fibrosis in combination with standard-of-care in pancreatic cancer guided by single-cell intravital imaging'.

Read more here.