HMRI Award Night fuels the fight against disease

Nov 3 2011

The medical research battle against diseases and disorders as diverse as melanoma, breast cancer, stroke, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, obesity, mental illness – even snakebites – received a major boost last night when the Hunter Medical Research Institute staged its annual awards.

Almost $870,000 was handed out in support of 33 project grants plus 14 awards and prizes for individual researchers, signifying a record amount of funding and a record number of recipients.

The ceremony at Newcastle City Hall attracted 270 researchers and supporters for what’s become the night of nights on the Hunter’s medical research calendar.

Clinical psychologist and University of Newcastle researcher Amanda Baker accepted the coveted Sparke Helmore/NBN Television Triathlon HMRI Award for Research Excellence, becoming the first woman to win the overall HMRI award since its inception in 1999.

“I am delighted that Professor Baker has won this award,” HMRI Director Maree Gleeson said. “She has an outstanding record of achievement in developing psychological interventions for people suffering co-existing mental health and drug and alcohol problems.

“Her research has direct relevance and benefit to improving health outcomes across our communities, and building improved capacity in our health services to respond to the breadth of mental health patients’ needs.”

Professor Baker’s pioneering smoking cessation research with people with psychosis has received international recognition. She also led the largest randomised controlled trials of treatments for substance use in major depression. Her research is also improving cardiovascular health in people with severe mental illness and depression.

Since her appointment to the University of Newcastle in 1995, she has attracted more than $9 million in research funding, published more than 140 research articles, books and clinician guidelines.  Professor Baker is a member of the University’s Priority Research Centre for Brain and Mental Health Research.

Meanwhile, the PULSE Early Career Researcher Award was won by Dr Mark Baker (no relation), who is a University of Newcastle Research Fellow working in the Priority Research Centre for Reproductive Science.

Dr Baker’s research focuses on investigating the basis for male infertility, which affects about one in 20 Australian men. Outcomes from his studies will have important implications for both male fertility and infertility and for development of new contraceptives aimed at preventing fertilisation.

“Dr Baker is a future leader in Australian medical research. He has the knowledge and intellectual sophistication to be able to harness the power of new technologies and advance our understanding of male infertility,” Professor Gleeson said.
HMRI Chairman Bob Kennedy noted the diversity of work being undertaken at HMRI and reflected on the different skills, attention to detail, patience and commitment required.

“They all share a common purpose, which is improving the health and wellbeing of our community,” Mr Kennedy said.

“The grants we announced tonight will allow researchers to progress their work to the point where they can apply for Federal grants – over the years, they have attracted $13 for every dollar HMRI has invested.”

Professor Gleeson, who is vacating the chair in December, added that HMRI’s strategy of building research distinction and healthier communities was reflected in the outstanding quality of Award applications.

“This is the last time I will represent the HMRI researchers at this level and I can confidently say that our vision is being delivered. The future of HMRI is in good hands as the younger researchers progress into leadership roles,” Professor Gleeson said.