Funding boost for research to eliminate bloodborne viruses in Australia

Researchers at The Kirby Institute have secured more than $2.7 million from the NHMRC for two projects relating to HIV care and hepatitis C testing.

blood test

NHMRC Partnership Projects create opportunities for researchers and partner organisations to work together on research that can lead to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention. Photo: Shutterstock.

The Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney has been awarded $2.7 million in Partnership Project funding by the National Health and Medical Research Centre (NHMRC). Announced today by the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, the funding will support research aimed at eliminating HIV and hepatitis C transmission in Australia.

$1.2 million to establish national database on HIV prevention and care

Dr Skye McGregor, head of the Kirby Institute’s Surveillance Innovation Group, has been awarded $1,216,847 for research that will help identify and address inequities in HIV prevention and care in Australia.

Despite recent reports of a potential HIV cure, HIV remains an incurable infection that is fatal without treatment. Australia has set ambitious targets for elimination of HIV transmission, but critical to achieving elimination will be ensuring that innovations in HIV prevention and care are accessible to all Australians.

“Despite national declines in HIV, these reductions are not seen across all sub-populations. Among heterosexuals and Asian-born gay and bisexual men, HIV diagnoses are failing to decline” says Dr McGregor.

“This is a critical time for Australia’s HIV transmission elimination effort, and in order to achieve elimination, we need a more detailed understanding of people who may be at risk of HIV and people newly diagnosed with HIV.”

The NHMRC Partnership Project grant will enable the research team at the Kirby Institute at UNSW to partner with community organisations and government to establish a better system for evaluating data about HIV prevention, testing, diagnosis and care in Australia. 

“We will create a national database that will anonymously bring together in one place already existing data that informs HIV prevention and care. This will provide detailed information on factors that are contributing to gaps in access to prevention and treatment. It will also help us understand why some population groups have poorer health outcomes than others and allow us to design a national health response that is better matched to the realities of the people who most need health care.”

The partnership brings together leading organisations that represent community, research and government. “Meaningful and ongoing engagement with communities impacted by HIV has been the defining factor in Australia’s successful response to the epidemic,” says Dr McGregor.

Adjunct Professor Darryl O’Donnell, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, welcomes the announcement of funding for this research.

“We look forward to working with the Kirby Institute on this collaborative partnership. This research will bring together practitioners and researchers to translate data into effective public health responses to prevent HIV and improve health and well-being. Research partnerships like this one are vital if we are to end HIV transmission in Australia.”

$1.5 million to evaluate national hepatitis C testing program

Professor Jason Grebely, head of the Kirby Institute’s Hepatitis C and Drug Use Research Group, was awarded $1,498,085 for research to evaluate a national testing program for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C virus is a major public health threat in Australia. New therapies can cure the virus in more than 95 per cent of people who have it and have led to reductions in liver-related mortality. But improvements in testing are needed so that people living with hepatitis can access these cures.

“Testing and treatment are hampered by current health service pathways which require multiple healthcare visits. People living with hepatitis C are some of Australia’s most marginalised populations, and so it’s vital we reduce the barriers to accessing testing and treatment services,” says Prof Grebely.

“Our team has previously evaluated a new test for detection of active hepatitis C infection in one hour, called a point-of-care test, which enables same-visit diagnosis and treatment. This test is now approved in Australia and has changed how testing and treatment can be delivered.”

The Partnership Project will evaluate a national program funded by the Australian government to scale-up point-of-care hepatitis C testing in Australia. The project leverages considerable cash contributions from government ($6.7m), and other partners (Gilead, $670k; Cepheid, $1.9m (tests/equipment).

“We are in a unique position in Australia to become one of the first countries in the world to eliminate hepatitis C. This funding will enable us to track and evaluate the program’s implementation, facilitating further scale-up of testing in Australia, and overseas.”