$26 million to support research into human disease

Cancer researcher Dr Tracy Putoczki.

THE Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has received $26 million in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding, announced today by Minister for Health The Hon Sussan Ley MP.

Finding new treatments for pancreatic cancer, strategies to eliminate malaria and identifying genes involved in muscular dystrophy were some of the institute projects funded in 2015.

Cancer researcher Dr Tracy Putoczki from the institute’s Inflammation division received more than $920,000 to investigate new treatments for pancreatic cancer.

Dr Putoczki said a major hurdle in the treatment of pancreatic cancer is the resistance of cancer cells to current therapies, leaving many patients with a poor prognosis.

“Many people with pancreatic cancer die within six months of diagnosis,” Dr Putoczki said. “We have identified a molecule that contributes to pancreatic cancer cell growth and causes resistance to current chemotherapy treatments.

“This funding will support us in investigating how this molecule works and whether inhibiting its actions could overcome resistance to chemotherapy. In the long term, this could provide much needed new treatments for pancreatic cancer.”

Professor Ivo Mueller, joint head of the institute’s Population Health and Immunity division, was awarded almost $1.4 million to advance malaria control and elimination in the Asia-Pacific region.

“To achieve our goal of a malaria-free Asia-Pacific region by 2030, we need to find new treatments and improved surveillance methods to rapidly identify residual pockets where the disease is transmitted,” Professor Mueller said.

“We will develop novel detection tests and use these tests in mass screening and treatment programs, addressing some major roadblocks to malaria elimination.”

Dr Marnie Blewitt from the institute’s Molecular Medicine division received almost $1.2 million funding for her research on the ‘epigenetic’ control of genes involved in diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

“Epigenetic modifications are changes made to our DNA that act like punctuation marks in the genome, telling the cell when to switch genes on or off,” Dr Blewitt said. “This epigenetic control of gene expression is critical for normal development and when it goes wrong it often leads to disease.”

Dr Blewitt has made significant discoveries in understanding the role of epigenetics in health and disease, also receiving an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship in the latest grant round.

“In muscular dystrophy, the normal function of epigenetic factors in switching genes off is imperfect, contributing to disease,” Dr Blewitt said. “My project will determine precisely how epigenetic factors switch genes off so that we can find ways of boosting this to treat muscular dystrophy.”

In addition to receiving 20 project grants with a total of $13.75 million, institute scientists were awarded three NHMRC Research Fellowships ($2.23 million), four Career Development Fellowships ($1.81 million), two Early-Career Fellowships ($788,000) and research infrastructure funding of more than $7.8 million.

Ryan Fritz

Ryan Fritz started The Advocate in 2014 to provide not-for-profits and charities another media platform to tell their worthwhile hard news stories and opinion pieces effortlessly. In 2020, Ryan formed a team of volunteer journalists to help spread even more high-quality stories from the third sector. He also has over 10 years experience as a media and communications professional for not-for-profits and charities and currently works at Redkite, a childhood cancer charity.

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