More than 8 million dollars invested in outstanding ANU medical research

15 December 2022

Researchers from The Australian National University have been awarded more than $8 million by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) through its Ideas Grant scheme.

The grants will support six projects, all led by researchers at The John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR), to address critical health challenges.

JCSMR Director Professor Graham Mann applauded these successes.

"Competition for these scarce grants is intense and so it is gratifying to see our researchers achieving success rates double the national average," he said, “But more importantly it is great to anticipate the future impact the work will have, by pulling apart difficult, complex problems in human health”.

Indigenous genomics

Researchers from the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) have secured more than $3 million for two 3-year research projects.

Dr Ashley Farlow's project "Genomic medicine for Indigenous Australians", which seeks to develop a novel mapping approach to uncover the genetic basis of kidney disease in the Tiwi Islands community, has been awarded $885,258.

"This condition is a major health burden to the community that has not yet been linked to any known mechanism of kidney disease," says Dr Farlow.

By analysing whole genome sequencing results of individuals from four remote Indigenous communities, researchers will identify if the disease burden in Indigenous communities is caused by genetic variations unique to each population.

"Our project will generate a resource that empowers Indigenous communities to engage with medical research with realistic expectations of investment and return," says Dr Farlow.

At the same time, Dr Hardip Patel at NCIG points out that it's also critical to fill the lack of ancestral diversity representation in existing genomic resources.

"Research in genomic medicine needs to systematically include Indigenous communities, and build in the benefits those communities want, to avoid making health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians worse," Dr Patel said.

"Research in genomic medicine needs to systematically include Indigenous communities, and build in the benefits those communities want, to avoid making health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians worse," Dr Patel said.

Dr Patel is leading a project to generate end-to-end, gapless reference genome sequences from 10 Indigenous Australians.

"With that as a base we can build a comprehensive catalogue of normal genetic variation, with the help of more than 1000 individuals from 10 communities, and translate that into better healthcare."

With $2,549,487 of support from NHMRC, Dr Patel looks to establish foundational partnershipswith Indigenous communities, international consortia, and healthcare systems.

"Our goals are to drive innovations in pan-genomics, facilitate novel discoveries in Indigenous genomics, and enable healthcare improvements for Indigenous Australians using genomics," he says.

Genetic variation in FASD

Professor Ruth Arkell has received $1,312,850 for her four-year project, which investigates how alcohol consumption by a pregnant woman can cause harm to their developing child and lead to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

FASD is the leading cause of preventable birth defects and intellectual disability in oursociety. By grasping the influence of genetic variation on the disorder, Professor Arkell set sights on understanding how we can better define a safe level of maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

"We are pursuing a novel idea in FASD research in which the baby's genetic makeup is shown to be critically important for the outcome of maternal alcohol consumption," says Professor Arkell.

"We now have the funds to pursue our innovative research and to demonstrate that alcohol levels that are currently considered 'low risk' by some policies may be high risk to a genetically susceptible foetus."

Arkell expects the project to provide essential insight for improving and standardising public health campaigns and formulating evidence-based, targeted, and proportionate messaging.

mRNA therapeutics

For the next four years, a funding of $1,556,956 will boost curiosity-driven multidisciplinary research led by Professor Eduardo Eyras to accelerate messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) therapeutics.

"Synthetic mRNA can be made and delivered into recipient cells to be translated into protein to trigger the desired therapeutic effects," says Professor Eyras.

However, several challenges, including only moderate delivery specificity and the lack of optimal translation profile, still hinder the widespread implementation of therapeutic mRNA.

Professor Eyras' team attempts to overcome the challenges by deciphering biochemical modifications of the RNA in a cell.

"This project will produce the knowledge as well as the molecular and computational tools to program synthetic mRNAs to have a robust and enduring effect in a cell-specific manner, thereby enabling efficient and precise therapeutic mRNA," says Professor Eyras.

Autism treatments

A study led by Dr Nathalie Dehorter aims to push the boundaries of treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Her focus is Neurokinin 3Receptor (NK3R), a novel target protein mainly expressed in the central nervous system.

"We propose a new therapeutic avenue for treating the core symptoms of autism," says Dr Nathalie Dehorter.

The project has secured a funding of $996,128 for the upcoming three years.

"The grant is a fantastic opportunity for my research to move forward, with, hopefully, significant outcomes and impact on society," she says. 

Platelet production

Also a recipient of the Ideas Grant is Professor Elizabeth Gardiner, an expert in mechanisms of thrombosis and cancer. Her project, "Molecular pathways that control platelet production", has been awarded $883,019.00 over three years.

Loss of platelets is commonly observed in people receiving treatment for their cancer. But a recently developed anticancer drug has been shown to have a unique property in increasing platelet production.

In her project, Professor Gardiner and colleagues will utilise this specific drug and others to dissect the molecular events involved in generating platelets and assess the ability of this therapeutic to offset platelet loss in cancer treatments.

"It's gratifying that an excellent idea and innovative project born from two separate laboratories, who have never co-published or worked together, has been recognised by peer review as worthy of funding," says Professor Gardiner.

This project also builds on the legacy of the late Associate Professor Kate Hannan.

"Kate contributed greatly to all the preliminary work and would have certainly been involved as a CI," remarks Professor Gardiner.

About Ideas Grants

The 2022 Ideas Grant round is the fourth round for this scheme, funding 232 projects from institutions across the country. The grants, which sum up to $241 million, are commencing in January 2023.

Details of all research projects that received an Ideas Grant are accessible on the NHMRC website.