Media contact

Yolande Hutchinson
Corporate Communications
0420 845 023

Scientia Professor Helen Christensen AO and Professor Alta Schutte from UNSW Medicine & Health have been awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Synergy Grants totalling $10 million. 

NHMRC Synergy Grants support outstanding multidisciplinary teams of investigators to work together to answer major questions that can't be answered by a single investigator.

Acting Dean of UNSW Medicine & Health Professor Adrienne Torda congratulated the academics on their success.

“Depression and hypertension are currently two of the most prevalent health conditions in Australia, and Professors Helen Christensen and Alta Schutte are very well-positioned to lead project teams in these areas,” Prof. Torda said. 

“The NHMRC Synergy Grants offer both teams the opportunity to enhance current treatments for these significant national health challenges.”

AI to tailor mental health therapies for diverse communities

Prof. Christensen, Board Director of the Black Dog Institute, has been awarded a $5 million grant for a project that aims to use AI to personalise psychological therapies. 

Prof. Christensen said many people with depression don’t like the psychological treatments on offer, and there has been little attempt to find out how individuals from diverse groups respond, and what treatments patients value.  

“This grant is all about improving psychological therapies by finding out which ones work the best for each individual, and which work best for diverse and under-resourced communities, whose characteristics and needs have not been addressed,” she said.

“The problem is that there is a lack of innovation in how psychological treatments are selected, delivered and funded, which has made mental health care stagnant and expensive.”

Nayonika Bhattacharya from Sydney, recognises the potential of AI in personalising treatments, used in a trusted patient therapist relationship.

“It took me two and a half years to find the right therapist and treatment,” Ms Bhattacharya said.

“Stigma within my community was a factor in the delay, and during this time, my mental health became worse. Having my psychologist start with the right treatment from the beginning would have been really helpful in improving my health quickly. It’s an exciting idea that I think would work well alongside strong trust and psychological safety between therapist and patient. That will help people be open to treatments they might not have heard of.”

An aim of the project is for it to be led by early career researchers from AI and health economics, and to incorporate the voices of diverse groups. The investigatory team consists of individuals who can speak Hindi, Telugu, Sinhalese, Japanese, Afrikaans, Greek, German, Dutch, and French.

Solving Australia's hypertension treatment problem

Prof. Schutte from the School of Population Health and The George Institute for Global Health has been awarded a $5 million grant for a project that aims to improve hypertension treatment in Australia.

The new project will unite various disciplines, incorporating the insights of consumers, economists, scientists, system design experts, as well as medical and health specialists.

Read more: High blood pressure rates: 1.2 billion people now living with hypertension 

“I am hugely grateful to the NHMRC for awarding our team with a Synergy grant. Our project is closely aligned with the recently established National Hypertension Taskforce and I am convinced it will improve how hypertension is managed across Australia. In fact, it holds the potential to save countless lives and billions of dollars,” Prof. Schutte said.

The team will undertake several trials related to how hypertension is treated, and will closely test interventions on their cost-effectiveness, suitability for both healthcare providers and patients, and their potential to be rolled out across the country.

Prof. Schutte said the first trial will focus on how long prescriptions are valid for.  

“This is particularly relevant because the prescription duration under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme was recently extended from one month to two months. The trial will explore even lengthier prescription durations, as they are expected to offer significantly improved cost-effectiveness and enhanced adherence among individuals with stable hypertension.”