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Sydney researchers awarded $47 million for medical research

14 March 2023
Improving health outcomes for Australians
Funding for 32 projects from the Australian Government's Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

Professor Muireann Irish (pictured centre) is among the Sydney funding recipients, almost two-thirds of which were women. She is developing a new tool to optimise the early and accurate diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia.

Researchers from the University of Sydney have been awarded $47 million to support 32 research projects, including investigations of younger-onset dementia, the treatment of blinding eye diseases through stem cell therapy, and the impact of e-cigarette use by adolescents.

The Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grants aim to transform health and medical research and innovation to improve lives, build the economy and contribute to health system sustainability.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Emma Johnston celebrated the funding success.

“I am heartened to see such strong support for our world-class medical research as we work to solve complex health challenges for the benefit of many Australians and their families.”

“This funding will allow our academics to undertake important research to address critical health issues; from projects to inform health interventions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in primary health care settings, to improved treatments for brain cancer, and stem cell therapies that reduce the impact of eye disease. I would particularly like to extend my congratulations to our early- and mid-career researchers awarded grants in this round," she said.

A full list of the successful MRFF projects awarded are below.

Developing new treatments for childhood dementia
Associate Professor Wendy Gold

Associate Professor Wendy Gold and team will expand upon research on Rett syndrome, a prevalent childhood dementia caused by mutations in MECP2. The neurological nature of the disorder impedes research as brain tissue is largely inaccessible. Stem cell-derived brain organoids offer an attractive solution, and by harnessing the power of -omic technologies where genes, proteins and metabolites can simultaneously be measured, common disease drivers, biomarkers, and drug targets can be identified and novel treatments can tested in a physiologically relevant system.

Total funding: $595,972

Keeping women over 50 engaged in physical activity
Professor Anne Tiedemann

Professor Anne Tiedemann and team will test the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and implementation potential of a virtually delivered physical activity promotion program Active Women over 50. Women aged 50+ are a priority for targeted physical activity programs, since capacity starts to decline at this age, and women aged 50+ have unique barriers to becoming active. The Active Women over 50 program combines website information, health coaching, a Facebook group and SMS or email motivational messages, to promote physical activity.  

Total funding: $1,210,256

Walking program for people with osteoarthritis
Professor David Hunter  

Professor David Hunter and team will develop, evaluate, and implement a sustainable, community-driven walking program for people with osteoarthritis. The Walk with Ease program is proven to reduce pain and improve function in people with moderate to severe levels of pain. This program will be adapted for the Australian setting by partnering with state-based arthritis consumer groups to co-design the delivery of a program that will focus on engagement, adherence, and long-term sustainability.

Total funding: $591,279.

Stem cell treatments for blinding eye diseases
Dr Anai Gonzalez Cordero

Most retinal diseases are caused by the degeneration of the light-sensing cells, the photoreceptor cells in the eye. Dr Anai Gonzalez Cordero continues her MRFF funded-research program in retinal cell therapy for the treatment of blinding eye diseases.  Together with collaborators at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute the team is generating human stem cell lines under Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). Transplantable photoreceptor cells, generated from these stem cells will be produced for regenerative therapy of the retina. In this new study the team will develop methods to purify and cryopreserve this stem cell-derived photoreceptor cell product. This pre-clinical process development enables translational research in stem cell medicine and cell therapy and offers a path to clinical trials of retinal cell therapy.

Total funding: $515,340.00

Bringing a corneal blindness treatment to the clinic
Professor Stephanie Watson

Professor Stephanie Watson and team were the first to discover a novel method of stem cell transplantation using contact lenses to treat corneal blindness. The cornea is the eye’s window and stem cells ensure its clarity for vision. To improve the success of existing stem cell treatment so that it can reach the clinic and restore sight, this research will develop novel biomaterials able to support stem cells during transplantation.

Total funding: $413,046.

Implant to diagnose and monitor recurrent stroke
Associate Professor Arnold Lining Ju

Associate Professor Arnold Lining Ju and team, in collaboration with NSW Telestroke Service and RPA Haematology, will introduce a low-cost, portable, standardised, point-of-care microdevice for stroke recurrent risk assessment. It particularly benefits the large and disadvantaged populations, including regional, aged, pregnant, handicapped, and indigenous. The research aims to expand future application of the standardised microchip to tailor intervention requirements, assess bleeding risk after surgery, and long-term monitor antithrombotic treatment and prognosis.  

Total funding: $1,199,996

Pioneering a new treatment for heart failure
Professor John O’Sullivan

Professor John O’Sullivan and his team identified a mechanism common to the major forms of heart failure, whereby a key molecule integral to the heart's fuel generating machinery is depleted. Restoring cardiac levels of this molecule were able to recover the failing heart in model systems, which will now be tested in patients in this application.

Total funding: $1,499,523

Preventing sudden cardiac death following heart attack
Associate Professor Eddy Kizana

Associate Professor Eddy Kizana and his team from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research and the Westmead Clinical School will further their research on the link from decreased electrical conduction in the heart and ventricular arrhythmia, that underlies sudden cardiac death following heart attack. This research has developed a novel therapeutic approach to address the lack of current treatment modalities that target this mechanism directly, to continue toward the clinical translation of this discovery by utilising gene therapy and other advanced therapeutics.

Total funding: $1,104,168

Improving equity and outcomes in cardiogenic shock
Dr Pankaj Jain

Dr Pankaj Jain and team will further research of Cardiogenic shock (CS), a common and lethal condition, where improving patient access to best practice care may dramatically improve their chance of survival. The ESCAPE-CS trial aims to implement and assess a comprehensive system of CS care, including a streamlined pathway for referring patients, a specialist shock team, and protocols to guide treatment. The trial is a necessary step in developing a comprehensive system delivering the best possible CS care to all Australians.

Total funding: $971,932.

Immunotherapy for children with incurable sarcomas
Dr Geoffrey McCowage

Dr Geoffrey McCowage and his team through the E2CAR Trial will test the administration of immunotherapy to children with incurable sarcomas as a first step in developing effective curative treatments to offer when standard therapies have failed. Solid tumour sarcomas in children are rare cancers that can recur, become treatment resistant, or spread in the patient by the time of diagnosis. Immunotherapies which direct a patient's immune system to attack their cancer can be curative in childhood leukaemias, but untested against sarcomas.

Total funding: $2,290,652

Trialling less invasive treatments for antibiotic resistant urinary tract infections in children
Dr Phoebe Williams

Dr Phoebe Williams and team will trial whether a safe, tolerable antibiotic (fosfomycin) can be is used to treat Urinary tract infections (UTIs) in children, with just a single oral dose required for most infections. Currently, children require admission to hospital to be treated with antibiotics (via a drip) to treat these infections. UTIs are one of the most common bacterial infections affecting children worldwide, and increasingly, these are caused by drug-resistant infections as antibiotic resistance spreads globally.

Total funding: $1,537,031

Delayed cord clamping to prevent anaemia, death and disability
Professor William Tarnow-Mordi

Professor William Tarnow-Mordi and his team will test how to benefit as many preterm babies as possible by "waiting a minute or more" before clamping the umbilical cord, which has been shown to reduce anaemia and improve healthy long term survival in babies who not need immediate help to breathe. Every year, more than 25,000 Australians are born preterm, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. This project will involve staff and parents in maternity hospitals across Australia.

Total funding: $2,980,495.

Standardising nursing care across the aged care sector
Professor Ramon Shaban

Professor Ramon Shaban and his team aim to develop a new model of care: HIRAID-AGEDCARE, which will be based upon the existing HIRAID model currently is use by emergency nurses across NSW hospitals. Nurses in the aged care sector are underqualified and understaffed, leaving them ill-equipped to handle the complex clinical needs of older Australians. HIRAID-AGEDCARE will provide an evidence-based framework to help nurses perform their roles optimally and standardise nursing care across the aged care sector.

Total funding: $1,498,690

Opioid tapering in patients prior to hip and knee arthroplasty
Dr Jonathan Penm

Dr Jonathan Penm and his team will identify the effectiveness of a multidisciplinary pharmacist-led opioid tapering intervention before hip and knee replacement surgery to reduce persistent opioid use. Hip and knee replacements are the most common joint replacement surgeries in Australia. Overuse of opioids in these patients appears to be common before surgery and have been associated with persistent opioid use after surgery, poorer post-operative pain, function and longer hospital stay.

Total funding: $1,484,070

Restructuring musculoskeletal health services to ensure equitable access to effective, affordable allied health care
Dr Joshua Zadro

Dr Joshua Zadro and his team research the impact of musculoskeletal conditions, such as the common back and neck pain, which put a huge strain on the public healthcare system. This program of work is led by physiotherapists and aims to test new virtual models of care that improve the health of Australians, are preferred by patients & health professionals, and use scarce healthcare money more efficiently. The new health services utilise virtual technology to reduce waiting times & ensure equitable access to effective, affordable care.

Total funding: $1,495,635

Adoption, impact and sustainability of evidence-based practice into health care
Professor Julie Redfern

Professor Julie Redfern and her team of allied health and nursing world-leaders in clinical, health services research and implementation science will build evidence that supports effective adoption of evidence into health care. In partnership with consumers and stakeholders, the team will develop and implement an efficient data collection system and systematically evaluate the funded Stream 1 and 2 projects led by nursing and allied health clinicians. These co-designed systems and resources will be transferrable to other MRFF schemes.

Total funding: $299,954.

Reducing modifiable cancer risk factors among socio-economically disadvantaged adolescents
Dr Katrina Champion

Dr Katrina Champion and her team aim to co-design a parent-based intervention that is as effective as possible in modifying lifestyle cancer risk factors among low SES adolescents, and that can be delivered with the least possible burden. The new parent-based program will be trialled alongside the team’s Health4Life school-based program to determine the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the combined Health4Life Parents & Teens Program in reducing overall cancer risk among low SES youth across NSW.

Total funding: $1,624,922.28

Reducing alcohol and other drug use among traumatised young people
Professor Katherine Mills

Professor Katherine Mills and her team will investigate substance use disorders, which are chronic debilitating disorders that typically emerge prior to the age of 25 against a background of significant psychological trauma. This RCT responds to an urgent need for scalable evidence-based interventions that target both substance use and the underlying trauma to prevent chronic psychological, neurological and physical health problems that may persist into adulthood.

Total funding: $1,886,854

Preventing e-cigarette use among adolescents
Dr Nicola Newton

Dr Nicola Newton, Dr Lauren Gardner and team will investigate the use of electronic cigarettes (vapes) among adolescents, which has drastically increased in recent years, making it a public health priority. Effective and scalable prevention approaches are urgently needed to reduce the short- and long-term harms associated with vaping. This study will evaluate the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the first school-based eHealth preventive intervention targeting e-cigarette use among young Australians; the OurFutures Vaping program.

Total funding: $1,879,022.

App to navigate and accelerate my mental health recovery
Associate Professor Nicola Hancock

Associate Professor Nicola Hancock and team will use the findings from preliminary research and employ a rigorous co-design process, to develop and test the usefulness and impact of the DRIVing my own mental health Recovery (Driv-R) App. Driv-R will transform a widely used and well-tested self-assessment (RAS-DS: Recovery Assessment Scale – Domains and Stages), from an outcome measure into a self-directed process to support mental health consumers to navigate and drive their own recovery assessment, goal setting and action planning.

Total funding: $556,676

The Natural Helper approach to culturally responsive healthcare
Dr Bernadette Brady

Dr Bernadette Brady and her team aim to understand if patients from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds experience greater engagement with chronic disease self-management when they receive mentoring from a culture-specific peer, compared to those who do not. CALD patients who receive mentoring from someone with lived experience are expected to be better equipped to adopt recommended behaviours and this will result in higher activation and self-efficacy, better coping and greater quality of life.

Total funding: $576,851

Adolescent-led transformation of preventive and public health research using citizen science
Dr Stephanie Partridge

Chronic diseases are among the most significant health threats facing today’s teenagers. Yet, few studies have engaged adolescent consumers in the research process. Using low-cost digital tools to engage teenagers in all phases of the research cycle, this project, led by Dr Stephanie Partridge, aims to find the answer to ‘Why aren’t teenage voices included in preventive and public health research?’. The results will improve teenage understanding of and interest in research, enhance research agendas and improve health outcomes.

Total funding: $799,815.

Making it easier for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health care services to screen for risky drinking and provide tailored feedback: adapting the Grog Survey App
Associate Professor Kylie Lee

Associate Professor Kylie Lee and her team will expand research on alcohol screening and brief intervention as effective ways to reduce risky drinking and related harms in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health settings. This study will deliver a valid, reliable and acceptable digital alcohol screening and brief intervention tool for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, which is integrated into a commonly-used practice software system.  

Total funding: $3,466,749.

Improving home care for infants with lung disease
Dr Ju lee Oei

Dr Ju lee Oei’s research aims to improve the health of infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), who are at risk of hypoxia (low oxygen levels), a primary outcome to decrease hospitalisation by improving oxygenation and improving patient compliance to medical care. The program will span four years with 224 Australian infants with BPD to use a wearable oximeter and digital health package under usual care or home oximetry, a method extensively used globally for home care of adult patients in the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Total funding: $1,900,000

Trialling a digital self-management package for people with Interstitial Lung Disease
Professor Tamera Corte

Professor Tamera Corte and her team will address a major unmet need identified by people with interstitial lung disease, for disease-specific self-management and support. We will study the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of our self-management program delivered via our smartphone application in a randomised clinical trial (REBUILD-SM trial). REBUILD-SM is anticipated to improve quality of life for people living with ILD, through better self-efficacy and reduced symptom burden and anxiety.

Total funding: $2,000,000.

Supporting brain cancer research with an integrated network of platforms
Associate Professor Rosalind Jeffree

Associate Professor Rosalind Jeffree and her team aim to deliver better treatment and care for Australian brain cancer patients we will establish three national, interlinked platforms: an Australian Brain Cancer Registry to reduce unwarranted variation in patient care; a Registry Trials platform to facilitate data-driven trials and patient donation of data and specimens to research; and a Biobanking and Organoid platform to standardise operating procedures and enable collaborative translational research.

Total funding: $5,990,000.

Timely post discharge medication reviews in rural and regional Australia
Dr Jonathan Penm

Dr Jonathan Penm and his team will focus on improving medication safety in rural and regional Australia, one of three flagship areas of the World Health Organisation Global Patient Safety Challenge: Medication Without Harm. In Australia, an estimated 250,000 hospital admissions per year are medication-related, costing $1.4 billion per year. To prevent these medication-related harms, Dr Penm and his team will to conduct a randomised clinical trial to evaluate the effectiveness of a virtual Transitions of Care Stewardship (TOCS) pharmacy service and timely-post discharge medication review in rural and regional hospitals. This trial will utilise an existing service known as Home Medicines Review (HMR), where pharmacists visit patients' homes to help them understand all the medicines they take, and combine it with virtual capabilities refined during the pandemic. 

Total funding: $1,499,128.

Active women over 50 in rural, regional and remote areas
Professor Anne Tiedemann 

Professor Anne Tiedemann and her team will research effective promotion of physical activity among women aged 50+ living in rural, regional and remote NSW. Risk factors for poor health are greater for Australians living rurally and remotely compared to those living in major cities and women aged 50+ have unique barriers to becoming active. The Active Women over 50 program combines website information, health coaching, Facebook group and SMS or email motivational messages, to promote physical activity. This research, in partnership with the Country Women’s Association of NSW, will test the effectiveness, cost-effectiveness and implementation potential of this virtually delivered physical activity promotion program.

Total funding: $1,133,447

A new tool to optimise the early and accurate diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia
Professor Muireann Irish

Professor Muireann Irish and her team aim to improve the accurate diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia (FTD); a debilitating form of younger-onset dementia. Anhedonia (a loss of interest) was recently identified as a key marker of FTD. This project will create a new clinical tool that captures early features of anhedonia to streamline the FTD diagnostic pathway. The new tool and training materials will be made freely available to optimise the early detection of FTD and to improve treatment outcomes for those affected.

Total funding: $1,789,025

Reducing medication-related harm in people living with dementia through community action
Dr Mouna Sawan

Dr Mouna Sawan and her team will educate, empower and support people with dementia and their carers to manage their medications safely by developing, evaluating, and testing co-designed medication management guidance resources for use in the community and during the transition into aged care. Poor medication management is one of the most common causes of hospital admission in people living with dementia and is often avoidable. 

Total funding: $677,742

Developing a  gene therapy approach for haemophilia A
Dr Marti Cabanes Creus

Dr Marti Cabanes Creus and his team aim to harness the cellular natural DNA repair process to provide a precise and durable therapy to Haemophilia A (Factor VIII deficiency), by safely inserting the correct copy of Factor VIII into a highly expressed region of the human genome. Factor VIII deficiency is a bleeding disorder that affects around 3,000 people in Australia. Gene therapy can tackle such deficiencies by delivering the corrective genes to the patient’s cells. 

Total funding: $524,049

Improving the diagnosis and management of lower respiratory tract infections in children
Dr Parveen Fathima

Dr Parveen Fathima and her team will develop a digital tool that can be used in the clinic to help doctors tell which children have bacterial infection and need antibiotics, from the many children who do not. Chest infections are the most common cause of hospital visits among young children. It can be hard for doctors to tell if a chest infection is caused by bacteria, viruses, or both. This research will reduce unnecessary testing and use of antibiotics and help improve the quality of care for these children.

Total funding: $958,403

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