The Kirby Institute has been awarded $13 million in funding from the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council, announced today by Health Minister, The Hon Greg Hunt. This includes three grants for world-leading Kirby Institute researchers, as well as funding for research on airborne threats to health, HIV prevention, neglected tropical disease control, and hepatitis C testing and treatment.
Professors Rebecca Guy, Andrew Vallely and Greg Dore were each awarded Investigator Grants to bolster their impactful research that works to improve health outcomes for some of Australia’s and our region’s marginalised communities.
“The NHMRC Investigator Grants scheme is highly competitive, and it is a testament to the impact and rigour of Rebecca, Andrew and Greg’s research that they have been recognised in this way,” says Kirby Institute Director, Professor Anthony Kelleher.
The Kirby Institute also received three NHMRC Partnership Grants and one Centre for Research Excellence grant. Prof. Kelleher says that the success in this funding round recognises ongoing impact of the Kirby Institute’s infectious disease research.
“Throughout the pandemic, our researchers continued to drive forward critical research across many areas. The projects being funded will address health threats to some of society’s most vulnerable, and help ensure Australia remains at the forefront of elimination efforts for HIV and hepatitis C.”
“The Centre for Research Excellence being led by Professor Raina MacIntyre will present an important opportunity to ensure we are better prepared for the inevitable airborne health threats that emerge in the future.”
Investigator grants awarded to three leading researchers
Professor Rebecca Guy was awarded nearly $2.3 million for her work on control of sexually transmissible infections (STIs).
Each year there are over 600 million new cases of STIs globally, which can lead to infertility, neonatal death and cancers. With this funding, Prof. Guy will work over the next five years towards developing and trialling more effective interventions to move Australia and the Asia-Pacific Region substantially closer to the goal of controlling STIs in high-risk populations.
Professor Andrew Vallely was awarded $2.01 million for his research on innovative technologies to improve sexual and reproductive health among women in high-burden, low-resource settings.
Prof. Vallely will evaluate novel, newly-available point-of-care technologies, aiming to improve the health of women and infants by reducing adverse birth outcomes due to undiagnosed and untreated STIs in pregnancy; and to prevent premature deaths due to cervical cancer by establishing and scaling-up robust clinical screening algorithms.
Professor Greg Dore was awarded more than $1.8 million for his research aiming to improve health outcomes for people who inject drugs. People who inject drugs are a vulnerable population within society. Recent advances in treatment of hepatitis C have provided optimism for improved health outcomes for people who inject drugs. Addressing other areas, particularly management of drug dependency, is essential to improving the lives of people who inject drugs.
BREATHE: Mitigating airborne threats to health
$2.5 million has been awarded to Professor Raina MacIntyre to lead a multidisciplinary Centre for Research Excellence (CRE) called BREATHE, which will study and mitigate airborne threats to health. Infectious threats spread by the respiratory route have the greatest epidemic potential because of rapid transmission from person to person. These threats, including airborne viruses, as well as bushfire smoke and other chemical and biological threats, have high impacts on human health and safety, and can require large decontamination efforts, all of which required careful, evidence-based planning and implementation.
Prof MacIntyre says that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the increased risk that indoor environments have on transmission of infection, but while understanding of aerosol threats has increased during the pandemic, it remains an under researched area. “The COVID-19 pandemic which followed the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires have demonstrated the health risks associated with airborne threats, and have also made clear the need to better understand them so that adequate planning can take place,” says Prof. MacIntyre. “The funding of this CRE will enable experts from a range of disciplines including medicine, engineering and science to come together and build the evidence base, and facilitate the translation of relevant science from non-medical disciplines into real-world health care.”
Implementation research to guide the elimination of HIV transmission in NSW
To bolster the new NSW HIV Strategy 2021-2025, a $1.5 million Partnership Grant has been awarded to a five year project, led by Professor Andrew Grulich, and supplemented by an additional $1 million from key partner, NSW Health. This highly collaborative project will bring together partners from NSW Health and community-based organisations working with gay and bisexual men, HIV positive people, professionals working in the HIV response, and culturally and linguistically diverse people at risk of HIV, to co-design and optimise interventions to meet NSW’s ambitious target of a 90 per cent reduction in HIV diagnoses by 2025.
NSW is a world-leader in HIV prevention, thanks to the availability and uptake of highly effective HIV prevention medication (PrEP), alongside effective HIV treatments that suppress the virus in people living with HIV to low levels such that it cannot be passed on. But enormous disparities in successful HIV prevention in NSW have been identified.
“HIV transmission has reduced dramatically among the broad risk group of Australian-born gay and bisexual men, but these declines were much lower, or in fact diagnoses increased, in those born overseas, living outside of central Sydney, or aged less than 25,” says Prof. Grulich.
“It is absolutely critical that we develop strategies that reach these particular groups if we are to achieve the goals set out in the new NSW HIV Strategy. Through implementation and monitoring of targeted interventions, this project will help ensure effective HIV prevention reaches these groups. If we can achieve this goal, NSW will be the first jurisdiction globally to virtually eliminate HIV transmission among gay and bisexual men, which is a very exciting prospect.”
Controlling neglected tropical diseases in the Pacific
A $1.5 million Partnership Grant has been awarded to Associate Professor Susana Vaz Nery to lead a major project in the Pacific that will bring together Australian-based and international researchers, non-governmental organisations and national Ministries of Health in the effort to control neglected tropical diseases in the region, through integration of programs and evaluation of their impact.
Neglected tropical diseases include a range of infectious conditions, and impact more than one billion people worldwide, mainly in low-income countries. They affect the poorest and most vulnerable in society and perpetuate the cycle of poverty. For several of these conditions, the main strategy for control recommended by the World Health Organization is “mass drug administration” or MDA, which involves distribution of medications to entire communities or subgroups such as children.
The multidisciplinary project will support an innovative approach to delivering MDA, using it to treat multiple diseases of concern, rather than relying on separate, disease-specific programs. It will be conducted in three countries: Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
“The overarching aim of this project is to enhance control programs for NTDs in the most effective and cost-effective way,” says A/Prof. Vaz Nery. “This funding will provide a welcome boost as we work alongside the implementing agencies who are already delivering MDA programs in these countries. By taking a multi-disciplinary approach, this project will deliver new knowledge about how best to implement and evaluate integrated control for multiple NTDs, and help to ensure the longevity of these programs into the future.”
Enhancing hepatitis C testing and treatment
A $1.35 million Partnership Grant has been awarded to a team led by Professor Jason Grebely for the ETHOS III Partnership Project, which will evaluate the impact of enhancing hepatitis C testing and treatment in drug treatment services across Australia and ultimately strengthen alignments between researchers, clinicians, the affected community, and policy makers.
Hepatitis C is curable thanks to highly effective direct-acting antiviral treatment, which has been available in Australia through the PBS since 2016. While uptake of treatment was initially very strong, it has since waned, delaying achievement of the World Health Organization’s target to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030. In Australia, hepatitis C predominantly affects people who inject drugs, so effective strategies to enhance testing and treatment among this group are critical. “Drug treatment clinics offer an opportunity to engage with people who inject drugs who are otherwise less engaged in health services,” says Prof. Grebely. “We have already successfully trialled this approach, and this grant will deliver important insights into how to most effectively scale up the delivery of point-of-care testing and treatment delivery for hepatitis C among this priority population. We are confident that this work will accelerate Australia’s progress towards the 2030 targets.”