Research Update

Sensing fetal distress and other research supported by Australians through the NHMRC

December, 2018

The misuse and overuse of antibiotics contributes to the global increase in antimicrobial resistance, creating a major public health threat that makes it more difficult and expensive to treat infectious diseases.

Therefore, I’m pleased to note that the NHMRC recently awarded a Translating Research into Practice Fellowship to Dr Jo-Anne Manski-Nankervis for her work on improving how antibiotics are prescribed in general practice. She is developing a computerised tool to help GPs make better decisions about prescribing antibiotics, reducing unnecessary prescriptions.

MRSA bug
Get it quick: This staph bacteria is resistant to many antibiotics. If not treated quickly it can cause blood poisoning and death. Credit: Annie Cavanagh. CC BY-NC.

This is just one of 75 grants to support research in basic science, clinical medicine, health services and public health awarded to University of Melbourne researchers in the latest round of NHMRC funding. Other University research supported by these grants includes projects that aim to:

  • Investigate why Indigenous Australian children enter the child protection system at a disproportionately high rate and how this affects their health, led by Professor Sandra Eades. Aboriginal children in out-of-home care can outnumber non-Aboriginal children by 17 to 1 in some parts of Australia. Understanding this disparity would help to develop more effective policies and services to support vulnerable families
  • Determine if the type of anaesthesia affects long-term survival in patients having cancer surgery, led by Professor Bernhard Reidel (Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre). The results are expected to be rapidly translated into practice to benefit cancer patients, more than 60 per cent of whom undergo surgery to treat their tumours
  • Develop an optical sensor for detecting fetal distress in labour, led by Dr Fiona Brownfoot. The most accurate and reliable way of identifying birth asphyxia – a leading cause of cerebral palsy, developmental delay and death in term babies – is by measuring fetal blood pH. A continuous pH sensor offers clinicians a safer and more effective alternative to intermittent sampling
  • Discover how a delicate balance between two immune cells contributes to the progression of rheumatoid arthritis, the severest form of Australia’s most common chronic disease, led by Dr Adrian Achuthan (Royal Melbourne Hospital). Understanding how these cells behave could reveal new drug targets that avoid the side effects, cost and limited effectiveness of current treatments.

We also celebrate the work of Professor Felicity Baker who received a Boosting Dementia Research Grant for her research on how music therapy can help people living with dementia, as well as their carers.

Supporting the next generation of graduate researchers is vital and I am delighted this has been recognised with funding for 12 NHMRC Postgraduate Scholarships. These three-year grants support outstanding graduates early in their career, building their capacity to conduct internationally competitive, independent research.

Professor James McCluskey – Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)

Of private schools and liquid fuels

18 December, 2018

An investigation of the outcomes of India’s Right to Education Act to help determine if affirmative action policies can reduce social inequality, led by Dr Amanda Gilbertson of the Faculty of Arts. The Right to Education Act requires private schools to educate underprivileged children for free.

A project to produce liquid fuels from atmospheric carbon dioxide with the potential to reduce transport’s carbon footprint, led by Dr Dan Miller of the Faculty of Engineering.

India school

A study of how oxygenation of Earth’s surface relates to the evolution of life, to improve understanding of long-term environmental and climate change, led by Dr Ashleigh Hood of the Faculty of Science.

A study of the origins and consequences of gender differences in people’s willingness to perform tasks that are unlikely to lead to promotion, which aims to help close gender gaps in the labour market, led by Dr Maria Recalde of the Faculty of Business and Economics.

These are just four of 22 projects led by early-career researchers that I am delighted to report have received funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC) under the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) scheme.

The awards were announced by the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, along with funding for an additional 64 research projects across all 10 of the University’s Academic Divisions.

They include 57 Discovery Projects that will allow University researchers to answer questions such as:

  • How did war-displaced migrant workers employed in nation-building programs following the Second World War change our built environment? (Associate Professor Anoma Pieris, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning)
  • What can we learn from the enforcement responses to serious corporate misconduct in the financial sector to make evidence-based recommendations for reform? (Professor Ian Ramsay, Faculty of Law)
  • How does heart tissue develop after birth, and how can we use this knowledge to create engineered muscle cells for drug testing and heart tissue repair? (Associate Professor Enzo Porrello, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute).

There were also six new research partnerships supported through Linkage Projects funding. These include a collaboration between Professor Paul Hemsworth of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, the Australasian Pork Research Institute, pork suppliers Rivalea and Sunpork, and others, which aims to improve stress resilience in farmed pigs.

This round of ARC funding brings more than $30 million to support the University’s commitment to research that will help us better understand the world around us – leading to a more just society, and a healthier planet for all.

Professor James McCluskey – Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)

From coral to colliders: The Australian Research Council invests in our researchers

17 August, 2018

The biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs around the world is climate change. But what if there was a way to forearm the reef to withstand ocean temperature increases?

That, in essence, is the thinking behind a bold proposal by Professor Madeleine van Oppen who was awarded a 2018 Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship this month. Professor van Oppen’s program will seek to bioengineer the microalgae and bacteria that are integral to coral tissue, giving them characteristics that make them more resilient to climate change.

Two other ARC Laureate Fellowships were also awarded to our researchers. One was to Professor Dan Li who will use materials that consist of a single layer of atoms, such as graphene, to understand and manipulate ions at the nanoscale for use in next-generation batteries, water purification, mineral extraction and biomedical devices. The other, to Professor Jonathan Barnett, will investigate how communities on low-lying islands successfully adapt to climate change.

Of course, the University does not simply support research leaders; a central tenet of our mission is the training of future research leaders, including development of our graduate researchers. So, too, is growing our research impact. Hence, it is with great pleasure I tell you of the new ARC Training Centre for Medical Implant Technologies led by Professor Peter Lee.

Announced by Minister Simon Birmingham, the new centre will train engineers in a unique industry-university-hospital environment. This new generation of engineers will learn to work hand-in-glove with clinicians to develop jaw, hip, knee and shoulder implants exquisitely engineered and 3-D printed to fit individual patients for improved cost, appearance and performance.

To help deliver this technology to patients, the trainee engineers will also develop a deep understanding of the regulatory environment, and the industry, innovation and entrepreneurship needed to bring a medical implant to market.

The University will not be doing this alone. The Training Centre for Medical Implant Technologies includes three Australian Universities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, 12 small companies from around the globe, large scale manufacturers, ethics and regulatory affairs experts and no less than six hospitals, including the Royal Children’s Hospital in the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.

Last week also saw the announcement of ten Future Fellowships, supporting University research in areas of critical importance to Australia.

This year’s Future Fellowships include projects to:

  • investigate how regulation can improve the practice of poorly performing legal and health practitioners to prevent them doing further harm (Associate Professor Matthew Spittal)
  • discover how and why beetles and butterflies reflect near-infrared light, which is expected to create opportunities to develop bio-inspired materials for enhanced energy efficiency (Associate Professor Devi Stuart-Fox)
  • develop machine learning techniques to help analyse particle physics results from the Large Hadron Collider, which will increase the chances of discovering new subatomic phenomena, and of ruling out incorrect theories in particle physics (Dr Matthew Dolan)

The full list of Future Fellowships, all equally as compelling, can be seen at the ARC website.

In total the ARC has invested over $20 million in University of Melbourne researchers and their collaborators. My very best wishes to all ARC-funded research teams around the country, and to the professional staff that support them. I look forward to following their research journeys.

Professor James McCluskey – Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research)