NHMRC awards $8.3 million to IMB research

20 Oct 2014

Research to investigate new treatments for cancer, diabetes and inflammation are just some of the innovative projects at UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) to receive new funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

IMB scientists were awarded $8.3 million across 10 research projects and a career development fellowship, contributing to the almost $52 million awarded to UQ researchers, from $580 million awarded nationally — including $98 million awarded to Queensland researchers.

IMB’s success rate for NHMRC Project Grants was more than double the national average success rate of 14.9 per cent.

Research highlights

Lymphoedema and cancer
Defects in lymphatic vasculature can have devastating health consequences, including lymphoedema, which is caused by insufficient tissue drainage. However, the lymphatic vasculature is also essential for the growth of solid tumours.

Dr Ben Hogan received an NHMRC Career Development Fellowship and two project grants with his team to understand the genetic basis of the development of the lymphatic vasculature system. By identifying and validating the key genes involved, they hope to find new ways to manipulate the lymphatic vasculature to treat cancer and lymphoedema.

Cyclic peptides to treat cancer and disease
Cyclic peptides have enormous potential for drug development due to their exceptional stability and oral activity. They can also be produced in plants, which means in the long term they can be manufactured in large scales at relatively low cost. Professor David Craik and his team received a project grant to exploit the cyclic peptide scaffold to develop new drugs for treating cancer and other diseases.

Professor David Craik also received a second project grant to develop more targeted chemotherapy drugs that can be delivered to the inside of cancer cells by exploiting the ability of small cyclic peptides to help penetrate cells. He is also using this cyclic peptide scaffold to develop new selective drugs based on melanocortins — a group of small protein hormones — for the treatment of a wide variety of diseases from inflammatory skin disease (e.g. eczema) to obesity and stroke. These melanocortins are involved in a number of biological processes from skin pigmentation to energy metabolism and memory formation.

Inflammatory disease
Chronic inflammatory or autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma are caused when the immune system is unable to turn itself off. Professor David Fairlie and his team will use their project grant to find a way to ‘turn off’ inflammation by developing drugs that selectively target a key mediator of inflammatory disease.

Inflammation in the brain and spinal cord
A key protein (Nlrp3) is known to play a role in sensing cellular stress or disturbance in our body and activating our immune system, yet how it performs this function is unclear. Professor Matt Cooper and Dr Kate Schroder will use their project grant to investigate the regulatory role Nlrp3 plays in a range of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, and develop small molecule drug candidates to test whether inhibiting the activity of Nlrp3 can help treat these diseases.

Diabetes and neurological disorders
The correct trafficking of molecules—such as glucose or chemicals within the brain—is essential for human health. Professor Jenny Martin and her team will use their project grant to understand the molecular basis of how glucose and brain chemicals are transported within the body, and use this information to develop selective therapies for type 2 diabetes and neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.

Obesity is now considered a chronic low-grade inflammatory disease, where excess carbohydrates (sugars) and saturated fats promote inflammation and increase body fat, triggering metabolic dysfunction possibly through immune receptors. Professor David Fairlie and his team will use their project grant to understand the vital interplay between inflammation and metabolism, and use this knowledge to develop new ways to prevent and treat diet-induced obesity and metabolic disease.

The activation of ion channels (e.g. Nav1.7) in our sensory nerves contributes to chronic and neuropathic pain. Dr Tina Schroeder and her team in Professor David Craik’s laboratory are developing a new class of peptide-based drug leads based on gating modifier toxins from venomous animals to ultimately be used as highly selective painkillers.

Hitting the Achilles’ heel of cytokine receptors to treat disease
Cytokine receptors are implicated in a range of disorders, including cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, blood disorders, osteoporosis and obesity. Dr Andrew Brooks (IMB/UQDI), Professor Mike Waters (IMB) and Professor Alan Mark (SCMB) aim to understand the molecular mechanisms behind cytokine receptor activation to develop a new class of drugs that target the Achilles’ heel of the receptor. This grant marks 39 years of continuous NHMRC funding for UQ research into the cytokine receptor for growth hormone.

Contact: Gemma Ward, IMB Communications Manager, +61 7 3346 213