Lab News & Events December 18, 2020
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Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research recognised by Federal Government for innovative research projects

Detection of illicit drugs, cancer research and the hunt for rare muscle weakening disease genes are some of WA’s research areas that have been awarded National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants for 2021.

Four of the eleven NHMRC Ideas Grants awarded to West Australian researchers were associated with the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research.

NHMRC Ideas Grants support innovative research projects that address a specific question or questions and provide opportunities for early and mid-career researchers.

The successful research areas are:

Emerging Drugs Network of Australia: a coordinated toxicosurveillance system of illicit drug use in Australia to enable rapid detection and harm reduction responses via an Early Warning System
CIA: Professor Daniel Fatovich – Centre for Medical Research / Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research
Doctor Jessamine Soderstrom, Professor Andrew Dawson, Associate Professor Sam Alfred, Associate Professor Shaun Greene, Doctor Katherine Isoardi, Doctor Laura Pulbrook, Doctor David McCutcheon, Doctor Francois Oosthuizen, Professor Nadine Ezard
Years awarded:   5 years
Total Funded:  $3,722,730.80

This is the largest Ideas Grant awarded. The Emerging Drugs Network of Australia brings together emergency physicians, toxicologists and forensic laboratories across the country to build a national surveillance and early warning system of illicit and emerging drugs. Our innovative approach will use laboratory confirmed data to identify the specific drugs that are resulting in patients affected by drugs presenting at emergency departments. This information will inform rapid, evidence-based public health responses to reduce further drug-related harm in the community.

Harms associated with illicit drug use are increasing. This is a global public health problem. There are many new synthetic drugs emerging at an unprecedented rate, for which there is barely any useful clinical data, making detection and public health responses difficult.

International calls for further research into illicit and emerging drugs have indicated that improved collaboration between emergency physicians, forensic laboratories, researchers and health services could help to identify new and emerging drugs more rapidly and provide more robust data. In Australia, information on trends in drug use is currently obtained through a range of measures, which provide little useful clinical information to assist clinicians managing acutely unwell people.

This collaborative research being led by Professor Daniel Fatovich from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research involves sentinel emergency departments in each state, and forensic laboratories.

Novel genomic approaches to identify the missing genetics underlying skeletal muscle disease
CIA: Doctor Gianina Ravenscroft – Centre for Medical Research / Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research
Associate Professor Robert Bryson-Richardson, Professor Nigel Laing, Professor Sandra Cooper, Doctor Mark Davis,  Professor Monique Ryan, Professor Phillipa Lamont, Doctor Macarena Cabrera-Serrano
Years awarded:  3 years
Total Funded:  $1,935,964.90

This project will identify the genetic cause of skeletal muscle disease in Australian families who remain undiagnosed. Making a genetic diagnosis is the crucial turning point for patients with muscle diseases.

Muscle diseases may present before birth (fetal akinesias), at birth, during childhood or in adult life. Skeletal muscle diseases frequently cause early death or result in life-long and significant physical disability. These diseases are currently known to be caused by variants in more than 300 genes. However, more than half of all patients do not have a molecular diagnosis despite genomic testing. This represents a huge unmet need for families with skeletal muscle disease.

Our project will tackle this ‘missing genetics’. Our ultimate goal is that all disease genes will be known, and all families will receive a precise molecular diagnosis.

The research is led by the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research’s Dr Gina Ravenscroft who is an internationally-recognised expert in the genetics of fetal akinesias and early-onset muscle diseases. She receives samples from around the world and has a collection of 300 families with neuromuscular diseases that present in utero or at birth and are frequently fatal.

Using latest tools that analyse DNA as well as world leading bioinformatics the research will focus on finding the mutations responsible for genetic muscle diseases. The work leverages established national and international collaborations and will bring in the expertise of former Eureka Prize winning scientist Professor Alistair Forrest at the Perkins. With his expertise in identifying the parts of the genome that are important for muscle movement – the team aims to create the first map of the regulatory components of the genome, which will be overlaid with data from patients, to identify the genetic variants which might be disease causing.

Therapeutic induction of tertiary lymph nodes in cancer
CIA: Professor Ruth GanssCentre for Medical Research / Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research
Doctor Anna Johansson-Percival, Doctor Louise Winteringham, Doctor Jiulia Satiaputra
Years awarded:   3 years
Total Funded:  $995,010.00

Immunotherapy has been the most important recent advance in cancer treatment by using the body’s own immune cells to fight cancer. Although there have been unprecedented dramatic results, not all patients benefit, and most benefits are temporary. The cellular environment in which cancers are embedded is crucial for controlling treatment success. We aim to apply novel ‘precision’ therapies to this environment to expose the cancer and enable attack by immune cells.

The research led by Professor Ruth Ganss, Head of the Cancer Microenvironment Laboratory at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research says “Specifically we are trying to induce lymph node like structures in the middle of a cancer to help fight infections with immunotherapy.”

Culture-independent microbiology: reducing delays in the diagnosis of severe infections and detection of antimicrobial resistance from days to hours
CIA:  Doctor Aron Chakera –  Centre for Medical Research / Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research
Associate Professor Timothy Inglis, Mr Kieran Mulroney, Ms Angela Jacques, Professor Suzanne Robinson
Years awarded:   3 years
Total Funded:  $949,589.25

Serious infections and sepsis are life-threatening conditions. Avoiding the most severe outcomes (hospitalisation and death) requires timely intervention with effective antimicrobial treatment. In serious invasive infections, every hour without appropriate antimicrobial treatment results in an increased risk of death. Certainty that an antimicrobial will be effective requires antimicrobial susceptibility tests (ASTs). ASTs are culture-dependent. Bacteria must be isolated and purified from patient specimens to test their susceptibility to the chosen antibiotic. In many serious infections, these tests can often fail to identify the organism causing the infection. In these cases, no microbiology evidence can be provided to treating doctors.

Acoustic-enhanced flow cytometry (AFC) is a means by which measurements of microbial cells in a specimen can be quantified and analysed without the need for extensive pre-incubation steps. This allows for results to be generated in hours, rather than days. AFC, when combined with our patented Flow Cytometry-Assisted Susceptibility Test (FAST), can provide accurate results, confirmation of infection, and details on the likelihood of treatment success in 4-6 hours.

While the diagnosis and treatment of most serious infections could benefit from AFC and FAST, we have chosen to focus on peritoneal-dialysis associated peritonitis, pleural effusion and blood infections. Each infection is relatively common, can have catastrophic impact on patients without effective antimicrobial treatment, and have proved challenging for other diagnostic tests.

To demonstrate that AFC and FAST provide a paradigm shift in the assessment of serious infections, we will undertake research to addresses the two largest hurdles to adoption of a new test, demonstrating they are equal to or better than the existing standard of care and that they deliver health economic benefits.