Honouring Victoria’s Brightest Medical Researchers

02 June 2016

The outstanding achievements of Victoria’s most talented and up-and-coming medical researchers were celebrated last night at the 2016 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research at Government House.

Now in its 22nd year, the Awards honour the amazing work and breakthroughs of health and medical researchers in the early stages of their career.

The recipient of the 2016 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research is Dr Stephanie Simonds from the Department of Physiology at Monash University. Her world leading research is changing how doctors will treat cardiovascular disease in obesity.

Dr Simonds’ research investigated the links between fat mass, obesity and cardiovascular disease and found that the hormone leptin is the cause of elevated blood pressure in obesity.

Also receiving commendations were Dr Brian Liddicoat from the St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the University of Melbourne, Dr Julia Marchingo from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and Dr Thomas Oxley from the University of Melbourne.

The Andrews Labor Government is proud of Victoria’s reputation as a world leader in health and medical research and is investing in modern facilities, cutting edge technology and clinical trials that will improve outcomes for patients.

The Government is delivering $150 million to build Australia’s first stand-alone cardiac hospital, $60 million to rebuild Orygen Youth Mental Health’s clinical and research facility in Parkville and $19.8 million to support Victoria’s Health and Medical Research Strategy.

We are also investing $50 million to plan and develop a National Centre for Proton Beam Therapy, $25 million to develop a state-wide genomic sequencing program and have committed $60 million to the new Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery at St Vincent’s Hospital.

The Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research recipient and commendations were selected by a panel of eminent health and medical researchers.

Quotes attributable to the Minister for Health Jill Hennessy

“Victoria is home to some of the world’s brightest medical minds who are saving lives with their ground breaking discoveries.”

“Thanks to medical breakthroughs happening here in Victoria, we are learning more about diseases and fast-tracking new and improved treatments that deliver better care and outcomes for patients.”

“Congratulations to this year’s recipient Dr Stephanie Simonds and to commendees Dr Brian Liddicoat, Dr Julia Marchingo and Dr Thomas Oxley for their wonderful, life-changing work.”

Quotes attributable to the Parliamentary Secretary for Medical Research Frank McGuire

“The Andrews Labor Government is supporting our world-class research institutions, whether it’s investing in new research projects, world-first clinical trials or building state-of-the-art facilities.”

Research abstracts of recipient and commendees of the 2016 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research

Dr Stephanie Simonds – Recipient – Fat is the cause of cardiovascular diseases developing in obesity.

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in Australia and globally. Excess body weight significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease development and it has been estimated that as much as 70 per cent of cardiovascular diseases can be explained by an increase in body fat. Dr Stepahie Simmonds’s research at the Biomedical Discovery Institute, Monash University, examined why cardiovascular diseases developed in obesity. Her research demonstrated that leptin, a hormone secreted into plasma by fat, is the cause of elevated blood pressure in obesity. Her research also demonstrated that obese children, deficient of either leptin or the leptin receptor, had lower systolic blood pressure compared to aged and Body Mass Index matched controls. Leptin regulates body weight through communicating the degree of body fat to the brain, producing strong physiological changes in food intake and energy expenditure. Dr Simmonds’s research also demonstrated that increased blood pressure could be reduced through blockage of the leptin receptor. She was also able to identify a population of neurons that expressed the leptin receptors in the Dorso Medial Hypothalamic region of the brain, demonstrating that leptin activates these neurons and this was responsible for increasing hypertension in obesity. Dr Simmonds’s findings have furthered our understanding of how cardiovascular diseases develop in obesity and potential treatments.

Dr Brian Liddicoat – Commendee – Identifying new treatments for cancer and a rare genetic autoimmunity disorder called Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome.

Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome (AGS) is a rare genetic autoimmunity disorder that affects newborns and young children. This is an extremely debilitating disorder for which there is currently no treatment. AGS sufferers have profound intellectual disability, painful skin lesions and an unfortunately short lifespan. Mutations in some patients with AGS cause a defect in an enzyme called ADAR1, which modifies the messenger molecules produced by our genes. In his doctoral research at the St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research, Dr Brian Liddicoat discovered how faulty ADAR1 causes autoimmunity in normal cells in the same way it does in AGS. He also found genes that we can target with drugs to dampen autoimmune responses in AGS, which has the potential to lead to the first treatment for AGS. After this discovery, Dr Liddicoat was able to show that cancer cells also require normal ADAR1 activity to survive. This means that new drugs may be developed to block ADAR1 activity. Dr Liddicoat’s research has also identified a therapeutic window to treat leukemia and potentially other cancers.

Dr Julia Marchingo – Commendee – Using math to predict how the body fights disease.

The immune response provides powerful protection against harmful infections. Recent trials have harnessed the power of the immune system to treat cancer with stunning success. Similarly, therapies that target immune cells have improved the health of patients with a range of autoimmune diseases. These treatments function by manipulating the strength and combination of the positive and negative signals immune cells receive to reinvigorate the anticancer response or suppress the autoimmune response. Signal combinations are currently chosen using a largely empirical ‘trial and error’ approach. Therefore, strategies to rationally design immune therapies are needed for faster development of better treatments. During her doctoral studies at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Dr Julia Marchingo analysed how different stimulatory signals control the size of the immune response. She discovered that each individual signal could be added together and by using a surprisingly simple mathematical formula predicted the size of the immune response when signal strength or combinations were altered. With further development this predictive framework has great promise to facilitate the rational design of immune therapies to improve treatments for patients with viral infections, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Dr Thomas Oxley – Commendee – Next generation minimally invasive brain machine interface for robotic limb control.

Brain machine interfaces are a new technology that enables brain activity to be recorded, and utilised for direct robotic control by thought. This technology promises to allow patients with previously untreatable conditions including spinal cord injury, the potential to manipulate mobility assist devices, including exoskeletons, with direct thought control. Dr Thomas Oxley’s doctoral research at the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital culminated in the first scientific report of a brain machine interface that can be implanted into the brain without the requirement for open brain surgery. The technology, called a stentrode, is an electrode array fabricated onto a self-expanding stent that is implanted via a minimally invasive procedure. Dr Oxley’s doctoral research involved the invention of the device, it's validation against more invasive devices, and demonstration of its recording sensitivity and bandwidth over a 6 month period of implantation. Over the course of the PhD candidature over $3.8 million dollars in funding was secured, a research laboratory established in the University of Melbourne, two patents were filed and a start-up company was formed. This technology may represent a paradigm-shift in the field of brain machine interfacing. Dr Oxley and his colleagues are now working towards a first in-human clinical trial of this pioneering, minimally invasive brain machine interface technology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital to enable thought control of exoskeletons for patients with paralysis from spinal cord injury.

Reviewed 19 August 2020

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