ANU heroes to vaccinate and fight against disease

Lisa Whop and Kinley Wangdi
14 September 2021

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) conquering viruses, cancer and malaria have been backed in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding. 

ANU will lead six grants from the $472 million pool for investment in Australia's health and medical research future announced by Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP. 

Almost $12 million has gone towards the work of Professor Ross Hannan, Professor David Tscharke, Associate Professor Ian Cockburn, Associate Professor Lisa Whop, Professor Carola Vinuesa and Dr Kinley Wangdi, from the ANU College of Health and Medicine (CHM). 

Professor David Tscharke's diverse work has been supported to unlock a better understanding how viruses persist in the body. 

"This award recognises the value of fundamental research into the mechanisms of viral infection and immunity to infectious diseases, which has a proud history at ANU and has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic," Professor Tscharke said. 

"I hope to find ways we can target viruses that hide in our body with therapies, and learn the general rules that our immune cells uses to detect and kill virus-infected cells. 

"The ultimate aim of my work on the immune system is to improve our ability to predict targets of a type of T cell attack, which is an important step towards harnessing this part of our immune system better in immunotherapies, not only for viruses, but potentially also cancers." 

Associate Professor Lisa Whop and Professor Ross Hannan are both helping fight cancer. 

"My team is currently at an exciting stage of our research with a new therapy in phase one clinical trials for the treatment of cancer and others in the pipeline," Professor Hannan said. 

"We have also made significant inroads in opening up a number of potential treatment strategies for  inherited diseases that lead to increase frequency of cancer."

Associate Professor Lisa Whop has been given a grant to address racialised health inequities in cancer. 

"Cervical cancer can be eliminated by vaccination, screening and treatment," Dr Whop said.  

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience rates of cervical cancer comparable with less developed regions of the world despite other Australian women having the lowest rates in the world.  

"This Indigenous led research program will focus on overcoming racial inequities via strategic culturally safe interventions." 

Dr Kinley Wangdi will use his grant to apply geographical information systems technology in the Asia-Pacific region to help stop malaria, dengue and soil transmitted worms. 

"I hope to improve malaria surveillance-response systems, develop early intervention systems to prevent dengue; and identification of the high-risk areas in the Lower Mekong Basin to support deworming programmes," Dr Wangdi said. 

Fellow malaria researcher, Associate Professor Ian Cockburn is working on understanding how our immune systems respond to the parasite that causes malaria, which kills about 400,000 people each year world-wide. 

"I am aiming to develop better vaccines and therapeutics for this disease," Professor Cockburn said. 

"Because this fellowship is tied to stable funding for five years it gives me the freedom to pursue big questions and high-risk high-reward science." 

Professor Carola Vinuesa was also awarded a grant for research with the potential to develop an entirely new treatment controlling the B cells of our immune system against autoimmune diseases and allergies. 

Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt MP, said the funding would help Australian researchers continue to make life-changing and life-altering discoveries.  

"Every day we acknowledge the extraordinary work of Australia's health and medical researchers not only to confront the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to continue their outstanding research to find solutions to the ongoing health issues we face," Minister Hunt said. 

Professor Russell Gruen,  CMH Dean, said: "These highly competitive awards from the NH&MRC reflect the leadership and outstanding science being undertaken by researchers at ANU. I look forward to their success and those who follow in future years."