Australian, Singapore researchers join hands to combat disease-causing bugs

Published on April 12, 2013 at 4:44 AM · No Comments

5 research teams in Australia and Singapore awarded A*STAR-NHMRC joint grant to design ways to combat disease-causing bugs

The fight against a number of significant infectious diseases in the Asia-Pacific region has been given a boost through a new research collaboration between the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia (NHMRC) and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore.

Joint funding of S$4.5 million (AUD$3.5 million) will support five research teams based in Australia and Singapore working on research projects that will address infectious diseases including tuberculosis, dengue fever and influenza.

These diseases were identified as significant threats to public health in the Asia Pacific region at the A*STAR-NHMRC Joint Symposium 2012 on Combating Emerging Infectious Diseases through Integrative Technology Approaches held last year.

"Infectious diseases affect the health and productivity of hundreds and thousands of people in Australia and around the region each year. This collaboration demonstrates Australia's capacity to join other world-leading research bodies and achieve much more than if countries tried to tackle these issues individually" NHMRC CEO, Professor Warwick Anderson said.

"The theme of infectious diseases is a topical and timely one. Our experience in the past decade with SARS, avian flu and H1N1 has taught us that in an increasingly connected world, understanding and managing emerging infectious diseases are a matter of highest priority for all countries. By partnering with our colleagues from Australia, we will be able to develop new approaches to better combat these threats to this region and the world," said A*STAR Chairman, Mr Lim Chuan Poh.

Tuberculosis (TB) is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent. Multi-drug resistant TB is present in virtually all countries.

Dr. Sarah Dunstan of the University of Melbourne and Associate Professor Teo Yik Ying of the National University of Singapore (NUS) will receive AU$379,279 and S$477,580 to provide knowledge critical for the design of treatments and vaccines for tuberculosis.

"In working with our colleagues from Australia, we hope to demonstrate the capability that Singapore has in terms of using genomic technology to understand, to monitor, and ultimately to develop further treatments and effective healthcare policies for any infectious disease," Associate Professor Teo said.

"Our project is important for the insights it will provide on how the host and the bacteria interact to cause TB disease. Understanding this interaction is crucial to drive developments in vaccine and drug design. With the ever-increasing connectivity between countries, new vaccines and therapeutics would not only greatly impact the control efforts in the TB high burden countries within our region, but also provide protection against TB resurfacing in Singapore and Australia due to travel and migration," Dr Dunstan added.

Professor Jamie Rossjohn of Monash University and Dr. Lucia Mori of A*STAR's Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) will receive AU$329,673 and S$393,000 to develop new strategies targeting tuberculosis (TB).

"Since 2007, the number of new reported TB cases in Singapore has increased by 22%, reaching 1,533 in 2011. The emergence of multi-drug-resistant TB is a serious public health challenge. Together with the Australian scientists, we are embarking on a multi-disciplinary approach to study how immune cells combat TB infection and develop new TB vaccines," Dr. Mori said.

"The project, forged from a strong Singapore-Australian alliance, will provide important biomedical insight into how lipid reactive T-cells play a role in combating TB infection," Professor Rossjohn added.

About half of the world's population is now at risk of dengue. The infection causes flu-like illness, and occasionally develops into a potentially lethal complication. There is no vaccine.

Professor Cameron Simmons of University of Melbourne and Dr. Khor Chiea Chuen of A*STAR's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) will receive AU$304,673 and S$483,000 to work on predicting patients at risk of severe dengue.

Said Dr. Khor, "The funding of this project is very timely as it will help us understand more about the mechanisms of Dengue infection in this part of the world. Only by improving our understanding can we attempt to use the new knowledge to help patients," Dr. Khor said.

"Dengue is major public health problem across much of the tropical world and we're delighted to be teaming with our colleagues in Singapore to address major knowledge gaps in understanding why some dengue patients develop severe, life-threatening complications," Professor Simmons added.

Professor Ken Shortman of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and Dr. Sylvie Alonso of the National University of Singapore (NUS) will receive AU$382,653 and S$445,200 to develop improved vaccines against virus diseases such as dengue, hand foot and mouth disease and influenza.

"This project is a true collaborative effort between two teams that bring together complementary expertises. This is a unique opportunity for us to contribute to cutting-edge vaccine technology and to support Singapore's efforts in fighting against infectious diseases that represent a major public health threat to the Asia Pacific region," Dr Alonso said.

"This project should initiate a fruitful collaboration between the basic research teams at the Walter and Eliza Hall and Burnet Institutes in Melbourne and the team at the National University of Singapore involved with development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. It represents an important step in bridging the gap between an exciting laboratory finding and its application to improved vaccines for human application. It will provide training and initiate collaboration between younger scientists in Singapore and Australia. It will assess if the new approach of targeting vaccines to dendritic cells can lead to improved vaccines against emerging infectious diseases," Professor Shortman added.

Influenza occurs every year in every country, seasonally and sporadically, killing between 250,000 and 500,000 people and causing severe illness in several million more.

Dr. Aeron Hurt of Melbourne Health and Dr. Sebastian Maurer-Stroh of A*STAR's Bioinformatics Institute (BII) will receive AU$374,673 and S$406,620 to work on the provision of better treatments for patients with drug-resistant influenza viruses.

"This project is unique as it combines computational models and predictions with experimental testing which is a smart and cost-effective way of addressing critical healthcare questions," Dr. Maurer-Stroh said.

"The project outcomes will aid the Singaporean and Australian response to future influenza epidemics and pandemics, potentially saving many lives by enabling improved and appropriate use of the anti-influenza drugs," Dr Hurt added.

International Collaborations

In recognition of the importance of international collaborations in health and medical research, NHMRC has strengthened its international partnerships by being an active member of the Global Alliance for Chronic Disease (GACD), the Heads of International (Biomedical) Research Organisations (HIROs), the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) and the Californian Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

A*STAR has close collaborations with the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) on infectious diseases, the New Zealand Health Research Council (HRC) on cancer and cardiovascular disorders, the China Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) on cancer, metabolism and obesity, and with EMBO on promoting scientific exchanges with European laboratories across different fields in molecular biology.

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