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February 2021

Simone Park jpeg

Simone Park

Image jpeg
Cammi Murrup-Stewart

Xinyang Hua jpeg

Xinyang Hua

Melissa Lee jpeg

Melissa Lee

Jesse Young jpeg

Jesse Young

Premier’s awards celebrate medical research excellence

Victoria’s brightest emerging leaders have been honoured at the 26th annual Premier’s Awards for Health and Medical Research.

Top honours – the Premier’s Research Excellence Award – went to Dr Simone Park from the University of Melbourne and the Peter Doherty Institute for her work on local immune protection against cancer and infection.

Dr Park was awarded $20,000 and a trophy designed by Geelong-based indigenous art collective Wathaurong Glass.

Research conducted by this year’s award finalists included exploring genetic factors in cancer risk, managing health risks in babies, finding gentler approaches to diagnosing young children, time-critical treatment of stroke patients, influences in mental health vulnerability and treatment and targeted treatment of chronic health issues.

The Premier’s awards celebrate the achievements of Victoria’s early-career health and medical researchers and highlight the breadth of work being undertaken in Victoria that can make significant improvements to the lives of people around the world.

The awards were judged by a panel of six experts from the health and medical research sector.

Premier’s Awards for Health and Medical Research:

Research excellence – Dr Simone Park for Local immune protection against cancer and infection. The immune system is essential to control the development and spread of cancer and infections. Tissue-resident memory (TRM) cells are a group of immune cells that are anchored in tissues such as the skin, lungs and gut without recirculating through the blood. TRM cells have been shown to enhance immune protection against malaria and influenza, as well as being associated with cancer protection. Dr Park explored how TRM cells prevent cancer progression and inhibit viral infection. This information can be harnessed to advance disease treatment. The research project used a novel melanoma model that allows tumour cells to be transferred to the superficial layers of mouse skin. For the first time, Dr Park showed that TRM cells are critical to protect against cancer development and can inhibit the growth of tumours without completely removing them from the body. She also discovered skin TRM cells can protect against viral skin infections and multiply after re-activation which allows them to be maintained in the tissue over time. These findings have revealed how local immune cells inhibit cancer and infection and provided evidence to explore TRM cells as targets of future cancer therapy and vaccines to treat human disease. Dr Park is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

Aboriginal researcher – Monash University Gukwonderuk Unit’s Cammi Murrup-Stewart for Connection to culture is like a massive lifeline: Yarning to further understand young, urban Aboriginal perspectives and experiences of culture and social and emotional wellbeing. It is widely accepted that culture is critical to wellbeing for Aboriginal mental health and social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB). Mrs Murrup-Stewart explored evidence to inform SEWB programs and policies among young urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Her PhD research had two phases – a systematic review and a qualitative study. The systematic review explored Aboriginal perceptions of SEWB program successes and failures. The qualitative research phase employed Indigenous Yarning Research Methods with 20 young urban Aboriginal knowledge holders to understand how they experienced culture, connection and wellbeing. The insights found within the PhD provide vital evidence to the community, policymakers and scholars about centrality of culture to wellbeing and the value of listening to indigenous youth. Mrs Murrup-Stewart submitted her PhD in September 2020, and took up an assistant lecturer role in psychology at the Turner Institute in December.

Health services researcher – University of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health’s Dr Xinyang Hua for Obtain the maximum health outcome benefits with the minimum expenditure. Chronic diseases cause more than half of deaths worldwide and bring a heavy economic burden on both individuals and health systems. Dr Hua’s research included six individual studies, covering a wide variety of research topics surrounding the theme of health economics and chronic disease. Using novel research design, rigorous methodology and statistical analysis, she found gaps in the existing chronic disease literature and made several important contributions as a result. In one study, Dr Hua investigated the trend of out-of-pocket expenditure for medical services in Australia. She was able to generate more transparent and informative statistics on medical services out-of-pocket expenditure, which can be used to help facilitate the evaluation of current policies. Her studies provide important new evidence on the costs of chronic disease and several practical tools to improve resource allocation and the better targeting of treatments. Dr Hua worked for two years at the University of Oxford as a researcher in health economics after completing her PhD. She is now a Research Fellow in the University of Melbourne health economics unit.

Clinical researcher – University of Melbourne and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute’s Dr Melissa Lee for Improving outcomes after surgery for coarctation of the aorta: a common congenital heart disease condition. One of the most common heart defects babies can be born with is coarctation of the aorta, where the main blood vessel from the heart has a narrow area so less blood is pumped round the body than normal. This means the heart must work harder to pump the blood around the body and is often unable to keep up. It is often treated with surgery but, over time, people can develop high blood pressure. The cause of the high blood pressure is unknown as it can still develop in people who have no sign of any ongoing narrowing in the main blood vessel. Dr Lee’s research following up patients after this heart surgery was the largest and longest study in the world. She worked in collaboration with the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. Dr Lee’s research found that these patients had three times the risk of early death due to the side effects of having higher blood pressure than the normal person. That led to a change in how this heart surgery is performed and improvement in long term follow up of these patients leading to better outcomes. Her research findings have been incorporated into international guidelines for the diagnosis and management of hypertension. Dr Lee is a cardiology registrar at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Public health researcher – University of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health’s Dr Jesse Young for Improving the health of people with mental disorders released from prison. People in prison often have poor health, experience social exclusion and economic disadvantages. Mental health disorders, especially severe mental ill-health, are more common among people in jail compared to the general population. People who are released from prison are at particularly high risk of poor health outcomes and this risk is increased if there is a pre-existing mental health disorder. Dr Young’s six globally unique studies showed people with pre-existing mental health disorders experience gaps in transitional service provision and are at increased risk of poor health outcomes after release from prison compared to those without a disorder. His research makes a compelling case that increased integration between forensic and community healthcare providers would improve the continuity of care and prevent poor health experienced by people released from prison. His findings can inform the development of interventions and service responses to improve continuity of care. Dr Young is currently working as a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) emerging leadership fellow in the justice health unit at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.

‘Victorian researchers improve lives and save lives with their hard work, inspiration and sustained excellence and that’s why we back them every step of the way,’ said Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy Jaala Pulford.

‘Congratulations to this year’s award winners and finalists – and the thousands of other researchers who devote their careers to helping people, whether they live next door or on the other side of the world.’

Victoria is home to 14 independent medical research institutes that employ more than 5,800 people.

The state’s wider medical research sector supports more than 30,000 jobs across institutes, universities and industry.