NHMRC supports concentration of efforts on substance use and mental disorders

A new Centre of Research Excellence in mental illness and substance use is one of 36 UNSW projects or fellowships funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council, to commence in 2018.


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A new Centre of Research Excellence in prevention and early intervention in mental illness and substance use is among 36 UNSW projects and fellowships to receive backing in the latest round of NHMRC funding.

UNSW received $2.5 million to lead the PREMISE Centre of Research Excellence, a collaborative initiative that brings together five universities to develop innovative, evidence-based prevention and early intervention for substance use and mental disorders applicable to all young Australians.

It was one of 36 UNSW projects or fellowships funded by the NHMRC to commence in 2018, worth a total $19.2 million, with a further $1.63M via UNSW’s affiliate The George Institute.

The Centre will be led by UNSW Professor Maree Teesson, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, and UNSW Scientia Professor Helen Christensen, Director of the Black Dog Institute. Other partners include Orygen, The National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, Newcastle, Deakin, Macquarie and Sydney universities.

Substance use and mental disorders are the leading global causes of burden of disease in young people, conservatively costing the Australian community more than $40 billion each year, according to Professor Teesson.

“We need to build the evidence base and research capacity in this important area,” she says.

“Professor Helen Christensen and I are proud to lead a team of outstanding UNSW rising stars, Associate Professors Nicola Newton, Kath Mills, Tim Slade and Cath Chapman as chief investigators, and the grant reflects the successful and innovative collaborations across our groups.

“Through the PREMISE CRE, UNSW and the Black Dog Institute will forge new links with Newcastle (Associate Professor Frances Kay-Lambkin), Orygen (Professor Patrick McGorry), Deakin (Associate Professor Cathy Mihalopoulos), and Sydney (Associate Professor Andrew Baillie) universities.”

The CRE follows UNSW joining Newcastle and Wollongong universities in the NUW Alliance and collaboration on health challenges in the 14-member Sydney Partnership for Health Education Research and Enterprise (SPHERE).

UNSW early and mid-career researchers were also big winners in the latest funding round:  15 Early Career Fellowships and 11 Career Development Fellowships went to UNSW researchers in the faculties of Medicine, Science and Engineering.

Early Career Fellowships foster career development at the postdoctoral level by encouraging the beneficial experience of a different research environment, while Career Development Fellowships aim to help early-mid career researchers to establish themselves as self-directed independent investigators.

Professor Nicholas Fisk, UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), congratulated the recipients.

“These early and mid-career researchers have been recognised for their outstanding ability and dedication to investigating problems that if solved, will benefit the health of Australians and people around the world,” Professor Fisk said. “Our early career researchers did particularly well with a 44% success rate, the highest in the Group of Eight.”

The Early Career Fellowships cover diverse fields, from using big data to improve IVF outcomes and reduce inappropriate medication use, to improving maternal and neonatal outcomes in low resource settings.

Dr Lucia Romani was successful for her work to optimise large-scale public health interventions to control neglected tropical diseases.

The Kirby Institute’s Dr Romani works on mass drug administration (MDA) projects in Ethiopia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands for neglected tropical diseases including lymphatic filariasis, soil transmitted helminths, trachoma and scabies, which is under-recognised as a cause of illness in developing countries.

The Skin Health Intervention: Fiji Trial (SHIFT) and the Azithromycin Ivermectin Mass drug administration (AIM) trial have been highly effective in reducing scabies in small populations, but the research group now needs to examine whether the results can be replicated on a larger scale, and whether treating scabies can reduce the burden of associated bacterial infections.

The Career Development Fellowships include support for UNSW School of Psychology’s Dr Angela Nickerson, who is working on understanding and treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in refugees.

The project will investigate core psychological mechanisms that underpin PTSD in refugees and develop a targeted intervention to reduce symptoms.

“Ultimately this research will advance knowledge about refugee mental health and inform best-practice clinical care for refugees,” Dr Nickerson said.

Also from the School of Psychology, Scientia Professor Richard Bryant received a NHMRC-EU Collaborative Research Grant for work on responsive mental health systems amidst the Syrian refugee crisis.

The NHMRC today announced 339 grants totalling more than $202 million, allowing discoveries that improve the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and, ultimately, cure of illnesses that affect many Australians. A full list of grant recipients is available on the NHMRC website: www.nhmrc.gov.au