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Projects led by UNSW Sydney researchers will share more than $8 million in federal government funding for life saving medical research.

UNSW researchers received two Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grants for clinical trials that will investigate safer and more efficient ways to use existing, high-cost medicines. Funding was also awarded to a project investigating a new treatment of spinal cord injury neuropathic pain, and a project developing an artificial intelligence system to detect epidemics early.   

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise Professor Nicholas Fisk applauded the University’s researchers on their success in this latest MRFF release. He said that UNSW had done well from this newer translationally focused fund now approaching that of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in scale and topped the university sector in the aggregate sum awarded to the end of Q1.

“These projects address treatments for challenging and refractory health morbidities, while Professor MacIntyre’s Stage 1 Frontiers grant is absolutely timely given this week’s World Health Organization (WHO) report on pandemic preparedness,” Prof. Fisk said.

Cheaper option to counter “ice” use

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), UNSW Sydney has received $4.9 million to trial a promising new treatment for methamphetamine (“ice” or “crystal meth”) use. The trial will test whether the common antidepressant medication, mirtazapine, can be used to treat methamphetamine use.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Rebecca McKetin said, “Ice is a significant and growing concern in Australia, for which no approved medications are currently available”.

“We have evidence from two small trials in the US that mirtazapine can help people reduce their methamphetamine use. We want to find out whether mirtazapine can work in a real-world setting to treat methamphetamine use in Australia.”

Mirtazapine is a low-cost generic medication already available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for depression.

Crohn’s disease relief

Associate Professor Susan Connor from UNSW Medicine & Health has been awarded $834,000 for a project to improve the therapy used to treat a debilitating aspect of Crohn’s disease. Perianal fistulising Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease associated with significant morbidity and reduced quality of life. While medication called infliximab is the main therapy used to treat the disease, more than 60 per cent of patients stop responding after the first year.

Researchers will evaluate the success of personalised therapy using infliximab, compared to standard fixed dosing schedules. This approach is expected to improve patient symptoms and reduce indirect economic costs.

Nerve pain improvements for spinal cord injury

Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin from UNSW Science and NeuRA, Professor James McAuley from UNSW Medicine & Health and Dr Hesam-Shariati from UNSW Science and NeuRA have been awarded $1.78 million for a trial which will examine nerve pain treatment for spinal cord injury sufferers. Nerve pain affects approximately 60 per cent of people with paraplegia and is consistently rated as one of their most difficult and debilitating problems.

The clinical trial will examine the efficacy and mechanisms of an advanced interactive Brain-Computer Interface Neuromodulation (BCI-N) treatment. The approach has substantially less risk of adverse side-effects compared to pharmacological interventions like opioids. Prof. Gustin said the clinical trial will address a crucial gap in spinal cord injury nerve pain treatment.

Rapid epidemic detection

Professor Raina MacIntryre from The Kirby Institute and UNSW Medicine & Health has been awarded $799,000 for an artificial intelligence (AI) system which could be a game changer in health security. Researchers say if the COVID-19 pandemic had been detected early in its genesis before it spread beyond Wuhan, it could have been stamped out entirely and the pandemic prevented. Rapid epidemic detection is possible using algorithms and artificial intelligence to mine open-source data, but to date has not been a focus of pandemic planning.

Prof. MacIntyre and her team will develop a fully automated intelligent system for rapid epidemic detection using open-source data, building on a semiautomated prototype, Epiwatch. It will use AI, natural language processing, automated translation, report classification and prioritisation, risk analysis, geospatial information systems and a searchable user interface (Web and Apps).