Region’s medical research environment is ripe for success

Nov 19 2019

Region’s medical research environment is ripe for success

Professor Tom Walley | HMRI Institute Director

Each year at this time, as we present the annual HMRI Awards Night, there’s an opportunity to reflect on the remarkable collaboration that exists between the Hunter community and our medical research partners and affiliates.

More than 11,000 individuals have provided gifts ranging from $2 to $2 million during the past year and, simply, Awards Night wouldn’t be possible without this generosity. Nor could we achieve our strategic goals, which include creating health and wealth for our region and nation and becoming key influencers in healthcare policy and practice.

The evening heralded 16 new grants and two scholarships, while also acknowledging more than 45 previously-funded projects, fellowships and scholarships. Total value exceeded $10 million.

With a strong focus on early- and mid-career researchers, we’re very much looking to the future. And, this year, we invited community members onto our judging panels, along with external experts from various scientific fields, to help ensure the projects resonate with patient needs.

Beyond funding, the awards also allow us to celebrate world-class research. We had some truly exceptional applications this year, showing, in the Institute’s 21st year, just how much the research environment has evolved and matured.

Nationally renowned mental health trailblazer Professor Frances Kay-Lambkin was fittingly named the 2019 Researcher of the Year – incidentally, the fourth woman in the past five years to receive the top honour.

While serving as Acting Pro-Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation, at the University of Newcastle, Professor Kay-Lambkin works tirelessly with a global team to support those with concurrent mental health, alcohol and drug problems.

Few researchers in the mental health sphere, anywhere in the world, have such impressive credentials and a track record of achievements – not to mention passion and commitment.

Professor Kay-Lambkin has pioneered the trialling and development of digital-based psychological treatments that benefit large numbers of patients and have contributed to a global shift in the treatment of so-called comorbidity.

The Award for Early-Career Research was accepted by colorectal surgeon Conjoint Associate Professor Stephen Smith, Director of the Hunter Surgical Clinical Research Unit at John Hunter Hospital, who will hopefully forgive me when I say he isn’t one of our younger researchers.

Rather, Associate Professor Smith is a relative latecomer to research as he also juggles a high surgical workload.

He has led innovative and high-quality research projects in three broad areas – infection, pain, and delayed return of gastrointestinal function. He recently completed a very large trial of different types of antiseptic agents used in surgery. It’s that impressive commitment to research, when there are so many other demands on his time, that make him a worthy winner.

Also announced was my Award for Mid-Career Research, presented to Associate Professor Luke Wolfenden from Hunter New England Population Health.

From his office at Wallsend, the former recipient of the HMRI Early-Career Research Award (2012) has attracted more than $22 million in grant income while authoring more than 300 journal manuscripts – 40 in this year alone.

Associate Professor Wolfenden has forged a reputation as an international leader in implementation science with significant public health merit, his work including the prestigious Lancet Commission Report on Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change and three large reports in tobacco control published by the World Health Organization.

We often speak of the importance of researchers being able to leverage further federal, state and industry funding from their HMRI pilot studies. This year, our affiliates were awarded over $12 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council and there’s strong potential for Medical Research Future Fund support to follow.

A newly announced Centre for Research Excellence in Digestive Health, led by Laureate Professor Nick Talley, Professor Marjorie Walker and Associate Professor Simon Keely, will work with national and international collaborators to unlock the mysteries of digestive health.

In other recent highlights for the region, Professor John Wiggers and Dr Matt Dun received NSW Premier’s Awards for Innovation in NSW Public Sector Science and Engineering and Outstanding Cancer Research respectively.

It was inspiring to see Professor Clare Collins elected as a Fellow to the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences for her exemplary research career in nutrition and dietetics, while her cardiovascular research colleague Dr Myles Young was announced as the Bupa Health Foundation Emerging Health Researcher for 2019.

All of these can be traced back to those $2 to $2 million donations I spoke of earlier. We have incredibly fertile ground, here in the Hunter, to turn seed funding into success, and the region should be justifiably proud.