Outstanding NHMRC results for Menzies Scholars

16 November 2015

Dr Zhichao Wu receiving his Dean's Award at the University of MelbourneIt’s been an outstanding result for Menzies scholars and researchers, with the announcement of the latest Early Career Fellowships and the outcomes for the 2015 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Grant Round.

Nine Menzies Scholars were awarded different categories of NHMRC grant, with the largest grant of $1.44 million going towards Professor Robyn O’Hehir’s research continuing the quest to find a peanut allergy cure.

Aside from new NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow, Dr Alexis Whitton, who is conducting research into bipolar disorder, two existing Menzies scholars have also been funded as part of the early career fellowship round with research to start in 2016.

2003-04 Harvard Menzies Scholar, Associate Professor Daniel Siskind (University of Queensland), will be looking into the cardiometabolic health of people with severe and persistent mental illness.

The Centre for Eye Research Australia’s Dr Zhichao Wu, 2013 Allied Health Scholar and current recipient of the Menzies Allied Health Sciences start up grant, will further his research on glaucoma with his NHMCR Early Career Fellowship.

The funded glaucoma project seeks to develop new clinical tests to take the “guesswork” out of its management – measures that can correctly identify those at high-risk of progression, accurately determine treatment efficacy and sensitively detect disease progression, thus preventing the irreversible loss of vision.

It has been a big few months for Zhichao who has also received Ophthalmic Research Institute of Australia/Eye Surgeon’s Foundation Grant of $49,000 funding for a project using eye tracked visual field testing for precise measurement of glaucoma progression. He was also recently awarded the Dean’s Award for Excellence in a PhD thesis at the University of Melbourne (he is pictured receiving that award).

Dr Misty Jenkins (2008 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow), from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, has also had an outstanding couple of weeks as a result of her extensive research on how the immune system controls cancer.

She was awarded the 2015 Tall Poppy Science Award for Victoria by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science, and last week was granted the RD Wright Biomedical Career Development Fellowship by the NHMRC ($419,180), to continue her work investigating the mechanism and consequences of cytotoxic lymphocyte detachment, through the University of Melbourne.

This Fellowship will allow her to continue her cellular immunology research to find new ways of treating cancer.

1986 Menzies Scholar in Medicine, Prof Robyn O’Hehir (working with Monash University), will utilise her NHMRC project grant to conduct trials of a potential vaccine therapy for peanut allergy.

Peanut allergy affects up to 2% of the population and is the major cause of food-triggered deaths from anaphylaxis. Typically peanut allergy is lifelong. Currently there is no specific treatment. Dr O’Hehir’s team’s vast experience in immunology for house dust mite and grass immunotherapy allowed them to identify critical components of peanut proteins needed as a safe vaccine to build tolerance to peanut foods. Now they will progress this novel and revolutionary vaccine through early phase clinical trials.

The NHMRC also awarded 2009 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow, Dr Daniel Worthley (University of Adelaide), with an RD Wright Biomedical Career Development Fellowship ($419,180) for his work using connective tissue stem cells to treat human disease.

The research will build on the material published in Cell earlier this year. His team will test whether a new adult stem cell they discovered could be used as a new treatment for osteoarthritis. The second new stem cell they discovered in the intestine, will be studied to determine its potential role in the development and treatment of bowel cancer.

Dr Worthley has been extremely successful with a number of projects funded under the NHMRC for 2015 and 2016. He is the chief investigator for two other projects: 'Osteochondroreticular stem call therapy for osteoarthritis: the right cells for the job' ($561,956) and 'Gastrointestinal mesenchyme supports intestinal stem cells, promotes intestinal regeneration and drives cancer' ($531,935). He is also part of the team at the University of Adelaide conducting a research project 'Why is the bone marrow a "hot-spot" for myeloma plasma cell metastastis: are there gremlins in the system?' ($651,979).

In fact a number of the projects funded this year for Menzies Scholars have a focus on cancer research.

2011 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow, Dr Sarah Jane Dawson, has been awarded a special project grant of $876, 950 over 3 years, for research conducted under the auspices of the University of Melbourne, to evaluate whether ctDNA can be used to monitor treatment responses and individualise treatment decisions in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

2003 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow, Associate Professor John Pimanda (University of NSW), will conduct research aimed at improving treatment outcomes for patients with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), with a project grant of $698,796 over three years.

The project brief said “Currently more than half the patients diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) succumb to complications associated with the disease or its treatment. To improve treatment outcomes, we need to understand how leukaemic cells self-renew and how this differs from normal blood stem cells. Our proposal aims to do this by using computational and experimental methods to identify and validate factors to which leukaemic cells are more dependent than normal blood cells.”

Professor Matthew Kiernan, (1998 NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellow) was awarded an NHMRC Project Grant ($605,172 over four years), working with the University of Sydney on the nodal function in peripheral neuroinflammatory disorders.

Prof Kiernan’s project brief read: “Inflammatory neuropathies are autoimmune disorders which produce severe disability and represent a costly burden to the healthcare system, but the causes remain unknown. Recent evidence from our team suggests that antibodies against parts of the peripheral nerve at the node of Ranvier are involved. The project aims to identify these specific targets and monitor treatment responsiveness, stabilise nerve function and prevent persistent disability.”

Success again for Menzies Darwin

Researchers at the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin have also achieved an outstanding result in the recent round of grants. In fact Menzies Darwin’s grant submissions received a 35 per cent success rate against a national average of 13.7 per cent.

Read their press release for more details.

Caption: A/Prof Chi Luu, Dr Lauren Ayton and Prof Robyn Guymer joined Dr Zhichao Wu when he was presented with his Dean’s Award at the University of Melbourne recently.