UNSW tops nation in NHMRC Partnership grants

UNSW Sydney researchers have secured more than $6 million for five projects that will improve public health services.
Yolande Hutchinson | UNSW Newsroom

Projects to improve healthcare for people with intellectual disability, enhance Hepatitis C testing, and improve treatment times for stroke patients are some of the major UNSW Sydney winners in the latest National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Partnership Project funding announced by federal Minister for Health & Aged Care Greg Hunt.

UNSW Medicine & Health was awarded $6.7 million for five Partnership Projects, part of $20.4 million funding awarded for research to create partnerships among decision-makers, policymakers, managers, clinicians and researchers. UNSW topped the country, being awarded six of the 16 Partnership Project grants.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research & Enterprise, Professor Nicholas Fisk said he was proud of UNSW researchers for their continued high success rate in engaging with policymakers to improve community health.

“UNSW securing 38 per cent of these grants nationally is an outstanding achievement. Whether it’s working towards elimination of viral scourges, controlling neglected tropical diseases in neighbouring countries, or improving service models for people with stroke and intellectual disability, we’re excited to work with a range of partners to ensure that our research turns into practice,” Prof. Fisk said.

Elimination of HIV transmission in NSW

Professor Andrew Grulich from the Kirby Institute at UNSW received $1.5 million for a five-year project to bolster the new NSW HIV Strategy 2021-2025. The grant will be supplemented by an additional $1 million from key partner, NSW Health.

This highly collaborative project will bring together partners from NSW Health and community-based organisations working with gay and bisexual men, HIV positive people, professionals working in the HIV response, and culturally and linguistically diverse people at risk of HIV, to co-design and optimise interventions to meet NSW’s ambitious target of a 90 per cent reduction in HIV diagnoses by 2025.

“HIV transmission has reduced dramatically among the broad risk group of Australian-born gay and bisexual men, but these declines were much lower, or in fact diagnoses increased, in those born overseas, living outside of central Sydney, or aged under 25 years old,” Prof. Grulich said.

“It is absolutely critical that we develop strategies that reach these particular groups if we are to achieve the goals set out in the new NSW HIV Strategy. Through implementation and monitoring of targeted interventions, this project will help ensure effective HIV prevention reaches these groups. If we can achieve this goal, NSW will be the first jurisdiction globally to virtually eliminate HIV transmission among gay and bisexual men, which is a very exciting prospect.”

Control of neglected tropical diseases in the Pacific

Associate Professor Susana Vaz Nery from the Kirby Institute at UNSW received $1.5 million to lead a major project in the Pacific that will bring together Australian-based and international researchers, non-governmental organisations and national Ministries of Health in the effort to control neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in the region, through integration of programs and evaluation of their impact.

NTDs include a range of infectious conditions, and impact more than one billion people worldwide, mainly in low-income countries. For several of these conditions, the main strategy for control recommended by the World Health Organization is “mass drug administration” or MDA, which involves distribution of medications to entire communities or subgroups such as children.

The multidisciplinary project will support an innovative approach to delivering MDA, using it to treat multiple diseases of concern, rather than relying on separate, disease-specific programs. It will be conducted in three countries: Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

“The overarching aim of this project is to enhance control programs for neglected tropical diseases in the most effective and cost-effective way,” A/Prof. Vaz Nery said.

Enhancing Hepatitis C testing and treatment

Professor Jason Grebely from the Kirby Institute at UNSW received $1.35 million to lead the ETHOS III Partnership Project, which will evaluate the impact of enhancing hepatitis C testing and treatment in drug treatment services across Australia.

Hepatitis C is curable thanks to highly effective direct-acting antiviral treatment, which has been available in Australia through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) since 2016. While uptake of treatment was initially very strong, it has since waned, delaying achievement of the World Health Organization’s target to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030.

In Australia, hepatitis C predominantly affects people who inject drugs, so effective strategies to enhance testing and treatment among this group are critical.

“Drug treatment clinics offer an opportunity to engage with people who inject drugs who are otherwise less engaged in health services,” Prof. Grebely said.

“We have already successfully trialled this approach, and this grant will deliver important insights into how to most effectively scale up the delivery of point-of-care testing and treatment delivery for hepatitis C among this priority population. We are confident that this work will accelerate Australia’s progress towards the 2030 targets.”

Healthcare for people with intellectual disability

Professor Julian Trollor from UNSW Medicine & Health received $1.2 million for a program that aims to improve healthcare for people with intellectual disability. It will identify gaps in current healthcare policy and practice for people with intellectual disability and drive necessary changes in policy and service to develop a new model of healthcare for this group.

“People with intellectual disability experience major health inequity which eclipses other disadvantaged groups. So stark is this problem that it was recently termed ‘systemic neglect’ by the current Disability Royal Commission,” Prof. Trollor said.

“Access to preventative healthcare is one of the most fundamental pillars of the Australian healthcare system but access for people with intellectual disability is poor, resulting, for many, in a lifelong trajectory of poor health and premature death.

“Our research seeks to partner with people with disability and those who support them, health services, departments and policymakers, to make a difference.”

The partnership consists of researchers from seven universities, 16 partner organisations and two external institutions, who are providing additional funding.

Faster treatment times for stroke patients

Professor Mark Parsons from UNSW Medicine & Health received $1.16 million for a project that will use digital health technology to improve communication between clinicians in hospitals, and in the field (pre-hospital) to improve treatment times for acute stroke patients.

“By improving communication between doctors, we hope to see more accurate diagnosis and faster treatment times. Faster treatment saves brain and leads to less long-term disability from stroke,” Prof. Parsons said.

The project consists of a partnership including UNSW, The Ingham Institute for Applied Medical Research, South Western Sydney Local Health District, Melbourne Health, and the Australian Stroke Alliance.