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Research that will assist in the identification of early stages of dementia, improve outcomes for childhood cancers, and examine ways to prevent a second heart attack are some of the UNSW projects that will share more than $180 million in federal government funding.

In this latest funding announcement, Minister for Health Greg Hunt announced that 106 new projects will receive funding through the government’s Medical Research Future Fund to support research in areas including cancer, dementia, brain injuries, heart problems and neurofibromatosis.

UNSW Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Scientia Professor Sven Rogge, congratulated the recipients.

“It is fantastic to see support for the outstanding work at UNSW on cancer, cardiovascular health, dementia, and Indigenous health spanning from clinical work, big data and artificial intelligence to community-led initiatives. Our researchers have been recognised for medical research that improves the lives of Australians and their loved ones,” Prof. Rogge said.

Childhood cancer research

Professor Glenn Marshall and Professor Murray Norris from Children’s Cancer Institute and UNSW Medicine & Health received $1.5 million for a project that will focus on improving outcomes for children with ‘high-risk’ cancers – leukaemias, sarcomas and neuroblastomas.

“This grant will allow us to address three significant gaps in knowledge that are hindering progress in improving outcomes for children with high-risk cancers. These include the causes of these cancers, the most effective way to treat them, and how to predict and avoid relapse,” Prof. Marshall said.

The research is likely to not only lead to improved treatment of childhood cancers, but also to potential prevention strategies.

Associate Professor David Croucher from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and UNSW Medicine & Health received $614,000 for a project that will investigate better treatments for neuroblastoma, one of the most common cancers affecting infants.

“The survival rate for high-risk neuroblastoma remains at less than 50 per cent, even with several available treatment options, including high-dose, multi-agent chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy,” A/Prof. Croucher said.

“Our project aims to reveal which treatment will be most effective for which tumour and identify combination therapies that are tailored to these vulnerable patients.”

Improving diagnosis in cancers with low survival rates

Associate Professor Amany Zekry and Professor Emad El-Omar from UNSW’s Microbiome Research Centre, and Dr Fatemeh Vafaee and Professor Arcot Sowmya from UNSW, received $4 million to develop microbial-based biomarkers powered by artificial intelligence for early detection of liver cancer.

A/Prof. Zekry, who leads the Australian Liver Cancer Microbiome Consortium at UNSW, said: “Liver cancer kills more than 2000 Australians each year, yet this cancer is potentially curable if detected early. Our work will discover, validate and translate microbiome and metabolome biomarkers for the early detection of liver cancer, thus improving the chances of survival of patients and making effective risk disease stratification possible.”

Prof. El-Omar, Director of the UNSW Microbiome Research Centre, said: “State-of-the-art microbiome and artificial intelligence research at UNSW, and access to unique longitudinal cohorts of patients with liver cancer and its precursors through our collaborative consortium, offer great hope in the fight against this global killer.”

Cardiovascular health

Professor Kerry-Anne Rye from UNSW Medicine & Health received $2.8 million for a project that will examine whether it is possible to prevent a second heart attack by reducing inflammation in heart cells and tissues.

People that survive a heart attack enter an inflamed state that increases the likelihood of having a second heart attack that is often fatal. Although inhibiting inflammation throughout the body reduces the likelihood of this happening, it also decreases the ability to fight infections.

Prof. Rye said: “If we succeed in inhibiting inflammation only in cells and tissues that are concerned with the heart, we will make a paradigm shift in future treatment of people who have already had a heart attack by reducing the likelihood that this will happen to them again.”

Associate Professor Blanca Gallego Luxan from the Centre for Big Data Research in Health and UNSW Medicine & Health received $545,000 for a project that will provide heart attack patients with an individual risk profile to help prevent subsequent heart attacks.

A/Prof Gallego Luxan’s project will use electronic medical record data to develop an automated risk calculator to inform clinicians of their patient's risk profile at discharge from hospital, so that targeted interventions can be provided.

“Research in this area would not be possible without a truly multidisciplinary approach, and I think one of our strengths is having a team of leaders in cardiology, technology and sociology working towards the same goal,” A/Prof Luxan said.

Dementia, ageing and aged care

Doctor Simone Reppermund from the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Medicine & Health received $1.3 million for a project that will develop a new online tool to assist in the identification of early stages of dementia.

Everyday activities such as shopping or managing medications and finances are necessary to live independently. The ability to perform these complex everyday activities declines with progression of cognitive impairment.

Dr Reppermund said: “Our project will provide an online tool that will assist in the diagnostic assessment of functional impairment for older people with cognitive decline.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of online services in many areas, including health and diagnostic services. Our online tool can be delivered to individuals living remotely, those who cannot travel to the lab or clinic because of geographical isolation or limited mobility, or during future pandemic-related lockdowns.”

Indigenous health research

Doctor Aryati Yashadhana from the Centre for Health Equity Training Research & Evaluation at the Centre for Primary Health Care & Equity, UNSW Medicine & Health received $560,000 for a project that will assist in understanding how cultural resilience impacts Aboriginal health and quality of life.

The project will work through existing community-led initiatives that use cultural camps, known as walaays, to understand how connection to Aboriginal cultural landscapes, language reclamation, and participation in cultural practices (ceremonial, medicinal, food) are linked to resilience and quality of life.

“In Aboriginal health research, it is often the funding that defines the project. I’m proud to say that this research idea truly stemmed from the community, and I’m honoured to join forces with revered traditional knowledge holders from the Yuwalaraay, Yuin and Gamilaraay Nations to undertake this important research,” Dr Yashadhana said.