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News & Events December 15, 2023

Eight (8) Federal government grants awarded to the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Two of Australia’s most significant research grants, given only to the nation’s highest performing researchers, have been awarded to Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research scientists.

Associate Director of the Institute, The University of Western Australia’s Professor Alistair Forrest and Head of Synthetic Biology, Curtin University Professor Oliver Rackham, have been awarded a total of $5.6 million.

Professor Forrest (pictured above, right) has received a nearly $2.9 million National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigator Grant, giving his laboratory the flexibility over five years to explore new directions in tackling some of the most challenging cancers using innovative approaches.

“Our team aims to push new technologies further in mapping cancer cells and the micro-environments that can influence their behaviour. We aim to gain new insights into why some difficult-to-treat cancers such as ovarian cancer resist treatment,” Professor Forrest said.

“An Investigator Grant gives us the freedom to do that, rather than being restricted to the scope of a specific research project.”

Professor Rackham (pictured above, left), one of Australia’s leaders in synthetic biology and an expert in programming molecules and cells with new and improved functions to treat diseases like cancer, has been awarded nearly $2.7 million to develop next-generation technologies for treating diseases that are resistant to current treatments.

Professor Rackham will investigate the use of synthetic biology approaches to produce unique treatments and provide hope for patients with childhood cancers, metabolic disorders and neurological diseases.

“My research vision is to harness the tremendous potential of synthetic biology to create new therapeutics for diseases that currently do not have treatments,” Professor Rackham said.

“Sadly, there are many diseases, like mitochondrial diseases and other childhood genetic diseases that are neglected because their treatments are often not considered profitable due to their cost to develop and the limited patient population.

“Synthetic biology offers great potential for developing new treatments for these types of diseases.”

Six NHMRC Ideas Grants awarded to the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research

Professor Peter Leedman AO $1,083,241
Institute Director and cancer researcher, UWA Professor Peter Leedman AO is one of six researchers at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to receive NHMRC Ideas Grants, which are given to support innovative research projects addressing a specific question. His laboratory is developing a new treatment for oral cancer, a disease with a poor prognosis.

“We will explore the ability of a small RNA called a microRNA to stop oral cancer in its tracks,” Professor Leedman said.

“Specifically, we have developed a microRNA called miR-7 that inhibits the growth of oral cancer cells in the lab and also overcomes resistance to chemotherapy.”

Associate Professor Juliana Hamzah $2,147,254
Associate Professor Juliana Hamzah and her team at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research received $2.1 million to develop a first-ever drug to clear blocked arteries.

Associate Professor Hamzah is working with vascular surgeon Professor Shirley Jansen, Co-Lead of the Perkins Cardiovascular Program, to develop a new treatment for cardiovascular disease, the world’s leading cause of death.

Each year an estimated 18 million people globally die from cardiovascular disease, from heart attack, stroke and conditions such as peripheral artery disease, which obstructs blood flow beyond the heart and brain and leads to an estimated 8000 limb amputations annually in Australia.

“We are working towards the development of a new treatment for cardiovascular disease, which is often caused by the build-up of plaque in large blood vessels and cannot be reversed,” Associate Professor Hamzah said.

“The treatment we are developing is a medicine which targets and shrinks plaque in blood vessels.”

Dr Aron Chakera $478,988
Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital renal specialist, Dr Aron Chakera, will demonstrate the potential for a novel test developed at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research to detect bacterial infections and determine the best antibiotic to prescribe in as little as 3-5 hours.

“Patients with serious infections cannot survive the several days it can take to return traditional antibiotic test results. Consequently, a broad spectrum, ‘one-size-fits-all’, antibiotic is typically prescribed,” Dr Chakera said.

“The biggest problem with prescribing broad-spectrum antibiotics is that it encourages some bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics. This is a growing and serious problem world-wide.

“This project will demonstrate the potential for our novel culture-independent diagnostic method to detect bacterial infections in clinical samples and provide rapid antimicrobial susceptibility profiles to guide clinical decision-making.

“We will also assess the potential health economic benefits of their implementation.”

Dr Olivier Clement $1,129,270
UWA epigeneticist Dr Olivier Clement was awarded an Ideas Grant for his research at the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research which aims to unravel the molecular mechanisms that control memory formation, storage and recollection to explore ways to mitigate cognitive decline in aging.

“Forgetfulness is a common complaint among many of us as we get older, but our limited understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying memory makes it difficult to provide an effective treatment for age-related cognitive decline,” Dr Clement said.

“We will decipher the molecular mechanisms and neuronal plasticity changes governing memory in adults and old individuals in order to further our knowledge of memory processes, and to reveal potential therapeutic targets to prevent cognitive decline in aging.”

Associate Professor Pilar Blancafort $2,887,936
UWA Associate Professor Pilar Blancafort, who led the ground-breaking research into the effectiveness of honeybee venom as a future treatment for breast and other cancers (, has been awarded an Ideas Grant to investigate the way in which cancer cells spread and become resistant to treatments.

“Some cancer cells use a mechanism to switch from a localised and treatment-sensitive state to an aggressive and treatment-resistant state,” she said.

“This mechanism is common in triple negative breast cancers, which have few treatment options.

“We propose new targeted treatments to switch off the major drivers causing this mechanism to activate in triple negative breast cancer.

“These will slow down or prevent cancer spread and make these aggressive breast cancers more sensitive to many other types of treatment.”

Dr Chuck Herring $887,020
UWA’s Dr Chuck Herring has been awarded an Ideas Grant to investigate human brain development and neurodevelopmental disease origins through comprehensive (epi)genomic analysis.

“The epigenome controls gene activity during normal development and is disrupted in diseases,” he said.

“Genes in the human prefrontal cortex change until the third decade of life, indicating the need to consider these changes when studying mental disorders.

“Our research will investigate differences in the epigenome and gene activity between people with and without neuropsychiatric disorders to better understand how these disorders start and progress, with the goal of identifying targets for new treatments.”

NHMRC grants were announced Friday, 15 December 2023, by Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Hon Mark Butler MP.