Innovation at the heart of HMRI’s translational goal

Mar 17 2016

Ruby the Robot

By Professor Michael Nilsson | HMRI Director

At the official launch of RDA Hunter’s Smart Specialisation Strategy for the Hunter Region report today (March 17), Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke of innovation being at the heart of the Federal Government’s plan to deliver a robust 21st century economy.

The Strategy acknowledged the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s contribution to the medical technologies landscape, which was extremely pleasing since innovation is also at the heart and soul of our world-leading research model.

Our strategic goals very much align with those of the Federal Government and RDA Hunter, and we are confident that a sustained focus on translational research and innovation will provide a solid footing to capitalise on grants from the Medical Research Future Fund and the $250 million Biomedical Translation package tied to the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Our pillar partners HNE Health and the University of Newcastle are the region’s biggest employers and through them HMRI has grown to become NSW’s second largest medical research institute. Some 1500 researchers and staff are now aligned to the Institute, striving to solve society’s biggest health conundrums.

When our founders met in 1998 I imagine this wasn’t even in their wildest dreams. But the translational research model that ensued was ahead of the game, so to speak, and it remains our sole purpose and passion. Simply, it means facilitating an ongoing flow of information and innovation from the science/academic sphere to the clinic and back.

With infrastructure continually being modernised to international standards, we’re attracting the leading medical specialists and grabbing the attention of other institutes and industries around the world. At any given time, clinical trials valued at over $100 million are being conducted in the region.

Researchers in HMRI’s seven core programs aim to break new ground and extend existing research, rather than duplicating work being undertaken by other institutes. The holistic and patient-focused approach to preventing and treating disease helps people far beyond HMRI’s geographical footprint.

Funding is allocated through a rigorous peer-review process and invested in areas of highest need. Hunter researchers also have an excellent track record in securing national funding and international recognition.

Of course, game-changing breakthroughs can emerge quite suddenly when you provide a fertile environment for smart people to work in. If you then harness the support of surrounding industries, anything is possible. That’s why HMRI has increasingly become pro-business in its thinking, facilitating new partnerships with drug and technology companies.

Being more proactive in our business interactions help us learn more about each other’s strengths. A recent alliance with HunterNet provides a mechanism, right on our doorstep, to underpin and accelerate new developments.

Of course, the flip side of the medical research coin is project funding. With the rising tide of precision and personalised medicine, there’s almost limitless potential to take this leveraging benefit even further.

Our role and goal have evolved from seeding start-up studies to fostering collaborations between scientists, clinicians and public health professionals along the translational cycle of research.

We also strive to give researchers the best possible tools and structures to enable new discoveries to be made. Underpinned by community and corporate support, our team excels in pulling together multiple stakeholders … a fact best exemplified this year by the tale of two state-of-the-art microscopes.

With support from corporate donor Glencore, a $200,000 laser-equipped device was installed at the University of Newcastle to give brain researchers unparalleled insight into complex disorders such as depression, stress, addiction, chronic pain and balance dysfunction. As the first of its kind in Australia, it has already been instrumental in the submission of four federal project grants exceeding $2 million.

Around the same time, HMRI was approached by three young biologists with a vision of hand-building a ‘light-sheet’ microscope at HMRI that delivers clear three-dimensional cellular images with unparalleled speed and precision. Where commercial versions cost up to $1 million, the trio assembled their unique device for just $70,000 using plans, parts and technical advice sourced from the internet and collaborators around the world.
A myriad of Hunter-grown research projects reaped significant investment returns and milestones in the past year. Potential flows from having the right people in the right place with the right equipment, creating an environment and culture where they can explore not just new research avenues but also revenue opportunities.