$6.4 million boost for health and social research

La Trobe University research into asthma, malaria, cancer treatment, breastfeeding, and muscle function has received almost $3.2 million from the Federal Government in the latest National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grants allocation.

La Trobe University's 'cell death' research group with Dr Silke, third from left, and NHMRC Australia Fellow, Professor David Vaux, far right.

La Trobe University's 'cell death' research group with Dr Silke, third from left, and NHMRC Australia Fellow, Professor David Vaux, far right.

Three of the five studies are by leading research teams in the biosciences.


A group headed by Dr John Silke from the School of Molecular Sciences has gained $486,000 for its studies on the mechanism that leads to cell death, a relatively new field of research critical to developing next-generation cancer treatments.

It aims to identify genes that are more important to cancer cells than to normal cells in the body. The idea is to then develop drugs that specifically target those genes, thereby killing cancer cells while leaving normal cells — those less reliant on these genes — relatively unscathed.

'This approach,' says Dr Silke, 'would represent a significant improvement over most existing radio and chemotherapies that target dividing cells irrespective of whether they are cancerous or normal.'


Professor Leann Tilley's team in the Department of Biochemistry has received $886,250 to probe the action of drugs to fight malaria, responsible for an estimated two million deaths annually.

With the malaria parasite developing resistance to existing anti-malarial drugs, the work is probing the molecular basis of drug action to help develop new drugs and therapies.


Professor Graham Lamb and colleagues from the Muscle Cell Research Group in the School of Life Sciences have been awarded $598,800 to further their work on the processes that make muscles contract. This has wide applications for health, exercise and disease.

With colleague Professor George Stephenson, Professor Lamb has overturned the widely-held theory that acidity, caused by a build up of lactic acid, is a major cause of muscle fatigue. They discovered the opposite: acidity helps prevent muscle fatigue.

The other two studies are being carried out by researchers from the Faculty of Health Sciences.


Dr Lisa Amir, a Senior Research Fellow at Mother and Child Health Research, heads a project supported by $751,600 to determine the cause of 'breast thrush' in lactating women.

A qualified medical practitioner and lactation consultant who works in private practice and at the Royal Women's Hospital, Dr Amir is a specialist in the role of Candida albicans in nipple and breast pain in lactating women which can lead to early cessation of breastfeeding if the condition is not appropriately treated.


And $454,550 has been allocated to Dr Bircan Erbas team in the School of Public Health for research into the impact of outdoor aeroallergens in exacerbating asthma in children and adolescents.

Her research has shown that grass pollen has an increasing effect on asthma hospital admissions. She is now studying the problem using new data from Melbourne and other Australian cities and plans to develop models to accurately forecast next day pollen counts.

Announcing the NHMRC grants, Health Minister Nicola Roxon said support for medical research was crucial for Australia's future. 'It allows our best and brightest to work at the frontiers of scientific discovery and helps ensure the health of our population for years to come,' she added.

ARC grants

Genetic 'switch' aids crop production — and how effective are our children's courts?

A further $3.2 million worth of grants has been awarded to La Trobe University researchers by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Crop boost

A research team led by Professor Roger Parish, Head of the School of Life Sciences, working in collaboration with Pacific Seeds Pty Ltd, has received $396,000 to develop a reversible male sterility system for hybrid seed production in canola, cotton and oilseed mustard.

Global demand for grains, fibre and other agricultural products, says Professor Parish, has increased significantly and, as a result, the security of food production is emerging as a critical issue.

The La Trobe researchers have identified a key plant gene linked to pollen development. They are now using this knowledge to increase productivity for Australian oilseed and fibre industries.

The system the group is working on provides a 'genetic switch' which can be used by seed producers to develop more vigorous crop varieties by turning off a plant's ability to self-fertilise, or in-breed. Hence, crosses involving parents from different inbred lines are possible and hybrid vigour can be achieved.

Courts probe

Professor of Social Work and Social Policy, Allan Borowski, has gained $580,000 for a national assessment of Australian children's courts and the effectiveness of their responses to often marginalised delinquent youth and vulnerable children and families.

Professor Borowski says there is increasing concern in Australia and overseas that existing children's court systems may be ineffective — and even contribute to longer-term problems, both for communities and government.

His study examines how key stakeholders, including judicial officers, view the courts' role in the 21st century and the sorts of legal and social policy changes they would like to see.

Cell damage

Professor Paul Fisher and his Microbial Cell Biology Group in the School of Life Sciences have won $170,000 for research on a new understanding of how mitochondrial dysfunction damages cells — namely that this may result from a signalling disorder in the cells, rather than an energy insufficiency as previously thought.

The work — for which Professor Fisher was awarded last year's Australasian Science Prize — has implications for the development of drug therapies to treat mitochondrial diseases, as well as many neurodegenerative disorders where mitochondrial dysfunction plays a central role.


Associate Professor Timothy Minchin from the School of Historical and European Studies has been granted $161,893 for research titled 'Made in the USA?: The Decline of the American Manufacturing Economy, 1950 — 2008'. In a world where factory closures constantly make headlines, Dr Minchin says the project has considerable relevance for Australia.

'In a global economy, the decline of manufacturing industries has also affected other high-wage labour markets. De-industrialisation is a transnational process and this project will show that many multinational firms have declined simultaneously in both the US and Australia.'

Refugee help

Professor Sandy Gifford, Director of the University's Refugee Health Research Centre, and sociologist Dr Raelene Wilding have been funded for $343,000 to examine how service providers working with young refugees can best capitalise on the skills and knowledge of displaced youth to help them develop positive identities and better futures. It is also hoped that insights from the study will enable Australia to more quickly benefit from the contributions of new arrivals.

Many young refugees are currently marginalised, says Professor Gifford. The investigation — which is being carried out with the City of Melbourne, the Cultural Development Network, the Centre for Multicultural Youth Issues and APC Au Ltd — will also contribute to improved community development and refugee service delivery.

Other projects supported by the ARC

  • Dr Christine Bigby, Social Work and Social Policy, with a grant of $380,000, for a project 'Realising an "ordinary life" for people with intellectual disabilities' to help develop a framework for better outcomes for people living in group homes
  • Dr Stefan Auer, Innovative Universities European Centre, and Dr Robert Horvath, Social Sciences, a grant of $140,290 for 'The Spectre of Velvet Revolution: Dissidents, International Civil Society and post Communist Authoritarianism'
  • Dr Sheila Crewther, Psychological Science, $300,000, for 'The advantage of being magnocellular: the role of the dorsal visual stream in object identification'
  • Dr Zhen He, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, $190,000, for 'Efficient databases for flash memory'
  • Professor Susan Thomas, Communication, Arts and Critical Enquiry, $117,000 for 'Anglophone Caribbean (auto)biography, plantation slavery, and the traffic of colonial reform and modernisation 1807 1834'
  • Historian Professor Diane Kirkby, Head of Politics, Professor Dennis Altman, and Australian Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Alice Garner, $235,773 over three years in collaboration with the Australian American Educational Foundation and the National Library of Australia for a 'Study of the Fulbright Program in Australia 1949 2009'
  • Professor Tim Murray, Head of Archaeology, $124,140 over three years with Museum Victoria for 'A Historical archaeology of the Commonwealth Block 1850 —1950'. The area is defined by Spring, Lonsdale, Exhibition and Little Lonsdale Streets in Melbourne