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Kirby researchers awarded $12M in investigator grants from NHMRC

Kirby Institute research on hepatitis C and HIV elimination, RNA immunovirology, neglected tropical disease and health economics has received NHMRC funding

News | Published on 15 Dec 2023

Nine Kirby Institute researchers have attracted a total $12,011,569 in funding through the NHMRC’s Investigator Grants scheme.

The scheme, announced yesterday by the Minister for Health, the Honourable Mark Butler, provides a total of $379 million to support medical research projects through universities and institutions across Australia.

In a highly competitive funding environment, the Kirby Institute had an overall grant application success rate of 45%, substantially higher than the national average of 14.3%. This result reflects the Kirby Institute’s standing as one of Australia’s leading infectious disease research institutes and the exceptional talent of its researchers.

The funds will support Kirby Institute researchers to lead projects aimed at hepatitis C and HIV elimination, RNA immunovirology, neglected tropical disease and health economics.

The UNSW Medicine and Health Interim Dean, Professor Adrienne Torda welcomed the announcement. “The Kirby Institute is a world-class organisation that produces cutting-edge research that significantly reduces the burden of infectious diseases not just in Australia, but globally. These new grants will enable our researchers to innovate and broaden the scope of their impactful work,” she said.

Congratulations to the Kirby Institute researchers who were awarded 2023 NHMRC Investigator Grants:

  • Dr Adam Bartlett was awarded $497,224 to undertake geospatial analytics for the control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases.

    Prevalence of many neglected tropical diseases can vary considerably within a given area, driven by environmental and climatic factors that impact transmission. Dr Bartlett’s research program will address critical gaps in delivering impactful neglected tropical disease control strategies by integrating geospatial analytics. This analysis takes into account the spatial aspects of disease epidemiology as well as environmental and climatic variables driving transmission. The work will help to evaluate disease risk and inform the design, implementation, and evaluation of control strategies specifically for schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminths, lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, scabies, and yaws.
  • Dr Benjamin Bavinton was awarded $1,586,190 for his research on achieving HIV elimination in men who have sex with men through innovations in pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

    Australia is committed to eliminating HIV transmission and UNAIDS has committed to ending AIDS globally by 2030. But HIV is still a significant problem in Australia with hundreds of preventable infections per year. HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is almost 100% effective at preventing HIV acquisition. If implemented at scale, it can drive HIV transmissions down to zero. Australia has a relatively successful PrEP program but there are critical gaps. Meanwhile, PrEP programs in Asia are underdeveloped. Dr Bavinton will lead a research program aiming to ensure all men who have sex with men can access and use PrEP effectively. This work will involve research to evaluate simplified oral PrEP services in Australia, a trial evaluating innovative, community-friendly PrEP service delivery in Indonesia, and research to implement and evaluate a new, long-acting injectable form of PrEP.
  • Associate Professor Deborah Cromer was awarded $1,586,190 for her work on the control of infectious disease.

    A/Prof Cromer will use her unique background in mathematics, interdisciplinary modelling and analysis of infection and immunity to conduct research on the control of infectious diseases that will continue to provide evidence for public policy and thereby influence both national and international policy decisions. Her research will apply both novel mathematical models and novel explorations of meta-analyses to investigate the key requirements for immunity, protection and the control of infectious diseases. She will apply mathematical and statistical models to analyse both immunological and epidemiological datasets and use the results of these models to assess the drivers of immunity and the impact of vaccination against respiratory pathogens.

  • Dr Evan Cunningham was awarded $662,040 for his research on interventions to improve diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis C.

    Viral hepatitis is a leading cause of death globally, with deaths surpassing those caused by any other infectious disease, including HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis. Through a five-year research program, Dr Cunningham will develop and evaluate innovative strategies to enhance testing and treatment to improve progress towards the elimination of hepatitis C (HCV) infection. This will involve evaluating the scale up of HCV point-of-care RNA testing in Australia, defining patient values and preferences for HCV diagnostic strategies and optimising HCV diagnostic strategies to achieve HCV elimination in Australia. This work will create significant health impacts for communities in Australia and worldwide.

  • Associate Professor Behzad Hajarizadeh has been awarded $1,586,190 for his research on hepatitis C elimination in Australia: Filling the gaps

    More than 70,000 people in Australia are living with hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Without treatment, they are at risk of liver failure, liver cancer and death. Prisons are a priority area for HCV elimination given high HCV prevalence in this setting. A/Prof Hajarizadeh’s research will evaluate HCV epidemiology and uptake of HCV testing and treatment in prisons. Enhancing post-treatment HCV care is also crucial for HCV elimination to detect HCV re-infection (in people who inject drugs) and liver cancer (in people with advanced liver diseases). A/Prof Hajarizadeh’s research will also evaluate methods to evaluate risk of liver cancer and re-infection following HCV treatment and to evaluate interventions to facilitate engagement in post-treatment HCV care.

  • Professor Anthony Kelleher has been awarded $2,000,000 for his research to harness RNA viral variability to end RNA viral pandemics

    HIV and coronaviruses pose ongoing global challenges. They evolve rapidly to avoid both host responses and biomedical interventions, but critical lessons learnt from one infection are applicable to the other. Prof Kelleher’s research will apply sophisticated cellular and molecular immuno-virological techniques to directly address critical clinical and public health challenges. This work will include the application of molecular epidemiology for HIV and phenotypic/genotypic correlations for COVID-19, research to develop a universal vaccine for coronaviruses, and research on short interfering (si)RNAs targeting invariant regions of viruses, delivered by nano capsules, as novel anti-viral therapy silencing viral replication.
  • Dr Alison Marshall has been awarded $662,040 for her work on reducing barriers to hepatitis C care among marginalised populations.

    In 2016, the advent of all-oral therapies for hepatitis C viral (HCV) revolutionised the treatment field, offering very high cure responses if treated. HCV primarily impacts people who inject drugs. WHO has set ambitious targets to eliminate HCV as a public health threat by 2030. Yet, testing and treatment uptake is low with only 10 countries on track to meet targets. Dr Marshall’s research will generate evidence on barriers to HCV diagnostic testing globally, the use of financial incentives to facilitate patient engagement in HCV care, and preferred HCV prenatal models of care. This will involve new research to determine the global availability of HCV diagnostic tests and policies restricting uptake and making recommendations for simplified HCV care. She will also test whether financial incentives significantly increase HCV treatment uptake and examine preferred models of HCV prenatal care among women who inject drugs and providers. 

  • Dr Skye McGregor was awarded $662,040 for research that will generate new knowledge to ensure Australia achieves the goal of elimination of HIV transmission.

    Australia has set the ambitious target of eliminating HIV transmission, aligning with global strategies “to end the AIDS epidemic” by 2030. In order to track progress and better understand where more work is needed, Australia’s national HIV surveillance system can be improved, especially to provide more granular detail to understand the reasons for gaps in access to HIV treatment and prevention technologies. Dr McGregor’s research program will link nine national datasets to create a cohort of people living with HIV to better understand the gaps in the uptake of HIV prevention and treatment technologies, what factors are associated with the lower uptake of prevention and treatment technologies and what are the barriers and facilitators to accessing HIV prevention and treatment, for groups experiencing inequity.

  • Professor Virginia Wiseman was awarded $2,769,655 for research to use health economics and health systems research to improve access to testing and treatment for infectious diseases of global importance

    Early detection linked to effective treatment is a pivotal intervention for controlling key infectious diseases, yet many populations, both in Australia and in low- and middle-income countries in our region, face major gaps in access to accurate testing technologies. Prof Wiseman will use health economics and health systems research to design and evaluate low-cost sustainable strategies to enable the scale-up of new testing technologies and achieve population-wide health improvement. This research will show how to bring early diagnosis to under-served populations thereby reducing inequalities in the burden of infectious diseases.