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04 Nov 2021

NHMRC awards Ideas Grants to 10 Garvan researchers

Garvan researchers will share in $7.1 million in Ideas Grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has awarded Ideas Grants to 10 researchers at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, to support their pioneering work in cancer, vaccine development, diabetes, and sarcopenia. The Ideas Grant scheme is a competitive, peer-reviewed grants system that provides up to four years of funding.

Garvan Executive Director Professor Chris Goodnow congratulates the scientists whose applications were successful: “This is a fantastic outcome for Garvan and the researchers who received funding from the NHMRC. We look forward to the outcomes of their research in years to come.

“Medical research funding in Australia is a highly competitive space, but these past two years have showcased what can be achieved with the right level of support. I would like to acknowledge our researchers who narrowly missed out on this round of funding and would like to thank all of those in the community who support our researchers in making a difference.”

Funded projects

Prof Susan Clark (Laboratory Head – Epigenetics Research)

When our body’s cells divide, they copy both their DNA and their ‘epigenome’ – additional layers of information on DNA that change its activity. This process can go awry in cancers. Prof Susan Clark’s team will investigate how changes to the epigenome when cells divide can lead to an increased risk of DNA rearrangements and how they contribute to the development of cancer. Her research aims to uncover new approaches for cancer treatment strategies.

Prof Shane Grey (Laboratory Head – Transplantation Immunology)

Immunotherapy is a highly effective cancer treatment for many but does not improve outcomes for all patients. Prof Grey’s team will investigate whether certain variants of the TNFAIP3 gene, which are known to heighten immune responses, improve cancer response to immunotherapy. The goal of this research is to determine whether a patient’s immune cells can be ‘tuned’ to target cancers more effectively, to ultimately help improve outcomes for patients.

Prof Vanessa Hayes (Laboratory Head – Human Comparative and Prostate Cancer Genomics)

Health outcomes of prostate cancer patients are influenced by both genetic and non-genetic factors. Prof Hayes hypothesises that non-genetic risk factors leave measurable changes within the evolving tumour, which has significant implications for precision medicine. Her team will investigate whole genomes from individuals of different ethnicities in Australia and Africa to identify the underlying causes that contribute to aggressive prostate cancer development and progression.

Prof Tri Phan (Laboratory Head – Intravital Microscopy Lab)

Advances in vaccines are urgently needed in the face of pandemics and the emergence of new viral variants. Prof Phan’s team aims to inform the development of more effective vaccines, by investigating the complex changes to the immune system that follow immunisation. Through preclinical and clinical studies, as well as next-generation microscopy, the researchers will track the development of immune cells to determine the factors that are critical to generate more potent immune responses to vaccination.

A/Prof Ozren Bogdanovic (Laboratory Head – Developmental Epigenomics)

A/Prof Bogdanovic’s team will investigate a promising target for cancer immunotherapy – cancer testis antigens, which are proteins normally produced in germline cells of healthy individuals but also produced in cancerous tissues. His project aims to unravel how cancer testis antigens are reactivated and how they contribute to the formation of cancer.

A/Prof Thomas Cox (Laboratory Head – Matrix and Metastasis)

In cancers, the connective tissue that surrounds cells – the extracellular matrix – is dramatically altered, which can lead to more aggressive tumours. A/Prof Cox’s team recently developed a new way to study the matrix in breast cancers and uncovered promising new therapeutic targets associated with more aggressive, spreading tumours. His project will focus on validating the potential of these targets with the aim to help improve the treatment of breast cancer.

A/Prof David Croucher (Laboratory Head – Network Biology Lab)

The protein ‘JNK’ plays a complex role in triple negative breast cancer – it prevents cancer from forming in normal tissue but also promotes tumour metastasis in patients with breast cancer. By screening 114,000 compounds, A/Prof Croucher’s team identified a molecule called K12, which specifically blocks the tumour-promoting activity of the JNK protein. His NHMRC project will further investigate K12 in preclinical studies, with the aim of developing a therapy that can prevent the spread of triple negative breast cancer.

A/Prof Ross Laybutt (Senior Research Officer – Islet Biology Lab)

Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a major public health burden that is caused by insulin deficiency and resistance. In obese individuals affected by insulin resistance, beta cells in the pancreas help release insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels – failure of which leads to T2D. A/Prof Laybutt’s team will investigate the factors that lead to this disruption in beta cell function and how it may be restored, with the aim to identify new and urgently needed approaches for treating T2D.

Dr David Herrmann (Senior Research Officer – Invasion and Metastasis Lab)

Aggressive cancers, such as triple negative breast cancer, are often accompanied by tissue fibrosis, or fibrotic scarring, which can protect cancer cells from drug therapies and fuel treatment resistance. In preclinical studies, Dr Herrmann’s team will investigate whether reducing tissue fibrosis can improve the response of triple negative breast cancers to therapies. The aim of this research is to help enhance standard-of-care cancer treatments and to improve patient outcomes.

Dr Andrew Philp (Group Leader – Mitochondrial Metabolism and Ageing)

As we age, the mass and strength of our skeletal muscles steadily declines, a debilitating condition known as sarcopenia. Preliminary research suggests that increasing the function of mitochondria – the energy producers of our cells – can protect skeletal muscle from this condition. Dr Philp’s team will investigate whether the experimental treatment BAM15, which stimulates mitochondria, can prevent sarcopenia in experimental models of ageing, with the ultimate aim to help develop new strategies for therapy.