2021-22 Budget Submission: Securing the future of Australia’s world-class health and medical research

2021-22 Budget Submission: Securing the future of Australia’s world-class health and medical research

9th February, 2021

Responding to COVID-19 and prioritising our early to mid-career researchers.

Every time a highly-skilled medical researcher is unable to secure funding to continue their research, more than 15 years of past training and expertise is lost

Professor Jonathan Carapetis AM, AAMRI President


Early to mid-career researchers are our brightest minds ready to respond to our future health challenges.

However they are also the cohort mostly likely to struggle to secure funding for their vital research. There are not enough grants or fellowships available from the government at this level.

Instead they are often part funded through philanthropy and fundraising, and then turn to their medical research institutes to fund the rest. Now, due to the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 the holes in this imperfect system are turning into chasms.

AAMRI calls on the Australian Government to fund 300 additional Investigator Grants in the 2021-22 Budget to ensure the future of our next generation of research leaders.

Read our full budget submission.

Meet some of our Early to Mid-Career Researchers

Dr Satvika Burugupalli, Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute, researching obesity and cardiovascular disease

After completing her PhD in 2018 at the University of Melbourne Dr Satvika Burugupalli joined the Baker Institute.

Dr Burugupalli is working on a project to identify novel lipids (fatty like substances in the blood) and genetic biomarkers of obesity and cardiovascular disease in early childhood. This important work could pave the way for early interventions.

She is working on a birth cohort called the Barwon Infant Study, which has about 1,000 mothers and children pairs recruited from the Geelong hospital.

The project aims to identify biomarkers that predict future obesity and cardiovascular risk in children. The team have performed lipidomics on repeated measures at various time-points from birth to 4 years. It is a valuable resource that is helping us to understand antenatal factors that might also effect a child’s health.

Dr Larissa Dirr, Institute for Glycomics, virologist and structural biologist with expertise in antiviral drug discovery

Dr Larissa Dirr is a virologist and structural biologist with expertise in antiviral drug discovery working at the Institute for Glycomics, Griffith University, Australia. One of her current projects focuses on COVID-19, where she aims to characterise ‘molecular risk factors’ using glycomic approaches.

She is also part of the Fraunhofer ​International Consortium for Anti-Infective Research (iCAIR®) that aims to identify and evaluate drugs that can be repurposed for the treatment of COVID-19 and develop them towards inhalative application.

Dr Dirr is a recipient of the prestigious NHMRC Peter Doherty Early Career Fellowship. Furthermore, she is a co-inventor of the anti-parainfluenza virus drug discovery technology that has now been licensed to Grand Medical Pty Ltd in Australia’s largest multimillion pre-clinical antiviral drug discovery program agreement to develop the first drug against human parainfluenza virus.

Dr Mark Adams, Translational Research Institute, researching lung cancer

Queensland scientist, Dr Mark Adams, is developing potential new diagnostics and treatments for non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of this cancer. With less than 30 per cent of patients responding to standard treatment, his research will help clinicians around the world identify patients more likely to benefit from existing therapies as well as producing new agents.

Dr Adams completed his PhD at Mater Research. He received an NHMRC Fellowship to commence postdoctoral work at the Queensland University of Queensland (QUT). He now leads a team within the QUT Cancer and Ageing Research Program at the Translational Research Institute, with funding from the NHMRC, the International Lung Cancer Foundation and Cure Cancer Australia. Overarching all his projects is an interest in cell cycle control and maintenance of genome stability, and how deregulation of these mechanisms contribute to cancer and disease.

Dr Corey Smith, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, researcher into virus-associated cancers

Dr Corey Smith’s research focuses on cellular immunotherapy, specifically in virus-associated cancers. He is the Head of the Translational and Human Immunology lab at QIMR Berghofer.

He recently received national media coverage for his COVID-19 immunotherapy project. Dr Smith and his team are taking T cells from recovered COVID-19 volunteers which contribute to protective immunity. This can then be used to treat those newly infected with the virus. His rapid whole blood assay can detect SARS-CoV-2 specific T cell responses in all recovered volunteers tested thus far. With his rapid shift to COVID-19 research, he has shown how agile and adaptable he is as a researcher.

Corey is a highly promising early to mid-career independent researcher who receives philanthropic support, as well as support from QIMR Berghofer.

Dr Davis McCarthy, St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, using AI to transform breast cancer screening

Computational Biologist Dr Davis McCarthy was recruited to St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research from the UK, where he had carried out his PhD and postdoctoral studies at Oxford University and the European Bioinformatics Institute.

Working at the interface of cutting-edge statistics, computing and cell biology, Dr McCarthy aims to develop and improve computational approaches in order to drive biological discovery. Recruited back to Australia thanks to philanthropic support, Dr McCarthy has since had remarkable funding success, most recently being awarded an NHMRC Investigator Grant and leading a recently announced $2.26m MRFF grant which will use Artificial Intelligence to transform breast cancer screening in a way that improves detection, lowers harm, reduces cost, and causes less stress for women undergoing a mammogram.

Dr Debbie Burnett, Garvan Institute, immunogenomics researcher

Tending to Kiwis and Kias in a vet hospital in New Zealand, Dr Debbie Burnett hadn’t dreamed of becoming a researcher. But inspiration struck and she realised her passion was to push the boundaries of medicine. Now, Debbie is a Research Officer in the Immunogenomics Laboratory at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, investigating the unchartered territories of the immune system.

Dr Burnett studies how the immune system deploys antibodies to fight disease. She focuses on various diseases of the immune system.

However, as COVID-19 struck, Debbie applied her skills to using humanised antibody repertoires in an animal model to generate antibodies binding to SARS-COV-2. She is focused on conserved regions that the virus would be unable to mutate away from and that could potentially be used as a therapeutic.

Dr Shiv Nagaraj, Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, genetic association with chronic disease, ATSI communities

Dr Shiv Nagaraj is an Advance Queensland Research Fellow at QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. He heads the international multidisciplinary research team which includes collaborators from the University of Queensland, Australian National University, the United States and India.

He is currently working to improve health outcomes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities by better understanding genetic association with chronic disease and has received $1.6 million funding under the Federal Government’s Genomics Health Futures Mission.

Dr Jennifer Juno, Doherty Institute, expert in immunity and influenza

Dr Jennifer Juno is a senior post-doctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

She completed her PhD in 2014 at the University of Manitoba in Canada, followed by post-doctoral training at the Public Health Agency of Canada where she focused on T cell immunology in TB infection. Her studies also included work with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, where she collaborated on projects characterising immune dysfunction during HIV infection.

At the Doherty Institute, she has developed an interest in understanding how T cells shape antibody responses to influenza, and what implications that might have for vaccine development. Since March, she has transferred these skills to ask similar questions about T cell and antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2. Her study of T cell responses in COVID-19 infected individuals was recently published in Nature Medicine, and she plans to follow this work with more detailed analyses of infection- and vaccine-induced T cell responses to SARS-CoV-2. She hopes that the knowledge gained from these studies will aid not only in the fight against COVID-19, but also improve preparedness for future pandemics.

Joep Van Agteren, SAHMRI, behaviour change and mental health researcher

Joep Van Agteren is the Research Lead for SAHMRI and Flinders University’s Wellbeing and Resilience Centre. Joep is a behaviour change and mental health researcher, with a keen interest in evidence-based intervention development, using formative research via systematic reviews and qualitative research to underpin research projects, and the use of technology in improving health and wellbeing.

After completing his BSc. and MSc. in Psychology at Maastricht in the Netherlands, he moved to Australia and started the role of researcher for the Respiratory Medicine department at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, where his work predominantly focused on improving models of care and ensuring implementation of evidence-based care in practice. After 2 years, he made the move to the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre, within the Mental Health and Wellbeing program.

Dr Kerrie Sandgren, The Westmead Institute for Medical Research, immunologist working on vaccine development

Dr Kerrie Sandgren is a Research Scientist and integral member of the Centre for Virus Research at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR). An experienced immunologist, Dr Sandgren spent four years at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and at the Vaccine Research Center, National Institutes of Health in the USA, studying what dendritic cells do when they encounter viral and vaccine components.

Dr Sandgren is now continuing her work at WIMR, looking at how different vaccine components stimulate the immune system.

The COVID-19 pandemic means that Australia is now relying on talented, skilled and passionate researchers like Dr Sandgren. She is part of a team at WIMR working tirelessly in an effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that is specifically formulated to be effective in the ageing – the most vulnerable group in the community.

Kelly Thompson, The George Institute for Global Health, researcher in epidemiology, economics and sepsis

Kelly Thompson is Manager of the Global Women’s Health Program, PhD candidate with the Critical Care Division at The George Institute for Global Health and Research Fellow with the Australian Sepsis Network. She is undertaking a doctorate evaluating the epidemiology, economics and long-term outcomes of patients treated for sepsis (a frequent consequence of COVID-19) in Australian intensive care units.

Her interest is in research and action to achieve health equity, particularly for underserved populations and those at the greatest risk of poor health outcomes.

Kelly is part of a project team including the Australian Human Rights Institute that will investigate why, although women and men are equally infected with COVID-19 in many countries in the world, more men are dying as a result of the disease. The research will also further build the case for removing the sex and gender bias from medical research that can prevent patients from getting the most effective care.

Dr Jane Davies, Menzies School of Health Research, clinical researcher in the area of global health and infectious diseases

Dr Davies is a clinical researcher with over ten years’ experience in the area of Global Health and Infectious Diseases. Dr Davies has an extensive clinical background in these areas, including working in communities in Tanzania, Malawi and England.

Dr Davies was awarded her PhD in 2016 which centred on Hepatitis B in the Northern Territory with a particular focus on Indigenous Australians.

She was instrumental in establishing and is now co-leader of the collaborative hepatitis B research program based at Menzies. Her research incorporates clinical and molecular epidemiology as well as health education for Indigenous communities. She also works clinically as an Infectious Diseases and General Medicine specialist physician at Royal Darwin Hospital.

Dr Melanie Neeland, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, researcher in allergy and immunology

Dr Melanie Neeland is a fellow of the NHMRC Centre of Excellence in Food and Allergy Research and currently leads the immunology research program of the Population Allergy and Respiratory groups at MCRI. Dr Neeland completed her PhD in vaccine immunology at Monash University in 2015. She is a recipient of a Melbourne Children’s LifeCourse Fellowship, a Thrasher Research Fund Early Career Award and has recently returned from an invited Visiting Fellowship at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research at Stanford University. Dr Neeland is an honorary fellow of the University of Melbourne Department of Paediatrics, where she co-supervises four postgraduate students and acts as a member of the Honours Committee.

Dr Neeland is a member of the inflammation network of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the Australian Respiratory Early Surveillance Team for Cystic Fibrosis (AREST CF) Scientific Management Committee, and the International Trained Immunity Consortium.

Dr Lucy Sullivan, Doherty Institute, transplant researcher improving the survival of transplant recipients

Dr Lucy Sullivan is leading scientific research on transplant immunology. Since completing her PhD in lung physiology, Dr Sullivan has focused on investigating the immune system following transplantation, with a focus on reducing rejection and controlling infection following lung transplantation.

Transplantation transforms the lives of patients with end-stage organ failure. However, long-term survival is limited by chronic rejection, post-transplant infection and cancer. Dr Sullivan’s team is uncovering key findings that will further strengthen Australia’s position as world-leaders in this area.

Her research is working towards a personalised medicine approach which encompasses better donor-recipient matching, cutting edge diagnostics and post-transplant monitoring of immune biomarkers to tailor immunosuppression and antiviral medications. It ultimately aims to improve transplant success and the quality of life of transplant recipients.

Dr Lucy Sullivan is a Senior Research Officer in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute and holds an honorary position at The Alfred Hospital with the Lung Transplant Service.

Dr Martin Davey, Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute, head of the Immune Surveillance Laboratory

Dr Martin Davey has received world-class training in immunology, microbiology and molecular biology through his PhD at Cardiff University in 2013 and postdoctoral training at the University of Birmingham in the UK. He is recognised internationally as an emerging expert on the role of human unconventional T lymphocytes that provide protection of the human body throughout life. His research team studies these cells in major infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and COVID-19. Unconventional T cells mount major protective immune responses when other arms of the immune system shut down and basic discovery research in this area will lead to the development of important new immunotherapeutics.

He is recognised internationally as an emerging expert on the role of human unconventional T lymphocytes that provide protection of the human body throughout life.

A/Professor Michelle Tate, Hudson Institute of Medical Research, researching immune defence in influenza and other infectious diseases

An NHMRC Career Development Fellow at Hudson Institute of Medical Research, Associate Professor Michelle Tate has made a number of key contributions to understanding how innate immune defences modulate disease during influenza virus infection, as well as other infectious diseases. She collaborates with commercial partners to facilitate the development of anti-inflammatory drugs for severe influenza virus infections and in 2020 is using her knowledge to tackle COVID-19.

A/Professor Tate has received numerous national and international awards, including a Young Tall Poppy Science Award (2018), the Christina Fleischmann Memorial Award (International Cytokine and Interferon Society 2016) and Victorian Infection and Immunity Network Career Development Award (2016).

After receiving her PhD in influenza virus pathogenesis from the University of Melbourne in 2010, A/Professor Tate joined the inflammation research group at Hudson Institute. In 2017 she established her own research group, and in recognition her extensive contribution to science, she was promoted to Associate Professor in July this year.

She collaborates with commercial partners to facilitate the development of anti-inflammatory drugs for severe influenza virus infections and in 2020 is using her knowledge to tackle COVID-19.

Dr Yuen Yee Cheng, Asbestos Diseases Research Foundation, researcher in epigenetic regulation and anti-cancer drug discovery

Dr Cheng is a molecular and cellular biologist leading the scientific research at the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute (ADRI).

Since completing her PhD in 2007, her research has focused on biomarker development, disease mechanism and preclinical models. She established cell and molecular biology techniques to study cancer cell in response to anti-cancer drugs using cell proliferation, cell cycle analysis and gene expression alterations.

She has recently submitted a grant application utilising her expertise to develop a rapid test for COVID-19. Dr Cheng’s research in epigenetic regulation and anti-cancer drug discovery via in vitro and in vivo models have made significant contributions in the field of cancer research. Dr Cheng is an editor of prestigious peer-review journals such as Disease Markers, Journal of Nucleic Acids, Frontier in Oncology and Epigenomes. She is an editorial board member of Epigenomes.

Dr Claudio Counoupas, Centenary Institute, specialisation in tuberculosis and infectious diseases

Dr Claudio Counoupas attended university in Italy before moving to Australia and completing a PhD at the University of Sydney in 2015. Joining the Centenary Institute in the same year as a Postdoctoral Research Officer he has been working to help develop a vaccine against tuberculosis; the world’s top infectious disease killer. Passionate about the immunology of infectious diseases, his ultimate goal is to work on a successful tuberculosis vaccine that can help to save lives.

As the challenges of the coronavirus became apparent Claudio has pivoted quickly. He is now co-lead on a collaborative Centenary Institute and University of Sydney project, focused on repurposing an existing tuberculosis vaccine to see if it can be used against COVID-19.

He is now co-lead on a collaborative Centenary Institute and University of Sydney project, focused on repurposing an existing tuberculosis vaccine to see if it can be used against COVID-19.