Spinal cord pain to PTSD: $5.2m in NHMRC grants to target pressing medical conditions

Dec 15 2022

Scientific illustration of human spinal cord

Both the body and the mind will be a key focus for innovative researchers from the University of Newcastle, who were successful in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ideas Grants.

More than $5.2m will be allocated to seven Newcastle research projects aiming to understand, address and reduce the severity of specific diseases and conditions.

The University of Newcastle and HMRI researchers will tackle some of the world’s biggest health challenges – including the burdens of infertility, pre-term birth, and developing an effective way to predict, prevent and treat bone metastasis in prostate cancer – of which there is currently none.

Associate Professor Brett Graham and his team will investigate the spinal cord origins of chronic pain and new treatment opportunities, diving deeper into understanding chronic pain signals by de-coding spinal activity.

Two successful projects will aim to gain a better biological understanding of mental health disorders in order to improve treatments. Research into underlying mechanisms and novel treatments for common disorders including depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) will receive more than $831,000 in a project led by Professor Chris Dayas and Dr Lizzie Manning. Dr Manning was also awarded funding for a study dedicated to better understanding behaviour and symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Almost $1m will be used to explore new therapies for inflammatory bowel diseases. This work will use 3-dimensional ‘mini-guts’ and trial a ground-breaking way to use artificial intelligence (AI) for drug target discovery.

University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Innovation) Professor Zee Upton said it was this level of innovation that had earned the University its stellar reputation for health and medical research.

“The number of successful projects in this funding round is a testament to the creative and modern thinking being done at the University of Newcastle and our ongoing commitment to drive discoveries that help people live better, healthier lives,” Professor Upton said.

“We are proud to see our researchers leading the way in the treatment of conditions like stress-induced disorders, which have been impacting communities globally, or for undetectable bone metastasis that impacts the survival and life of cancer patients.

“Through these projects, our researchers are driving collaborations with experts from more than one dozen Australian and international institutions, to ensure we bring the best and brightest minds together to tackle these critical health challenges.”

The 2022 NHMRC Ideas Grant round is the fourth instalment of its kind and is open to researchers at all career stages.

The successful University of Newcastle 2022 NHMRC Ideas Grants recipients:


Dr Gerard Kaiko

Funding: $984,565

Inflammatory bowel diseases are an increasingly prevalent cause of morbidity worldwide. Therapies that induce mucosal healing are a key unmet clinical need required to improve disease remission.

Using a form of artificial intelligence on genomic networks from large patient datasets we have identified novel drug targets in the intestinal barrier. The project will use 3-dimensional human 'mini-guts' to investigate the potential of these drug targets to improve healing and reduce disease severity.


Dr John Schjenken

Funding: $899,842

A father's influence over reproductive outcome goes beyond the provision of sperm. Our research has shown that signals carried by seminal fluid influence the likelihood of conception and pregnancy, but the identity and regulation of these signals is unknown. This research will define novel drivers of fertility and expand our understanding of the biological events at conception.

Ultimately, these findings will inform the development of therapeutics that address the rising burden of infertility.


Professor Christopher Dayas

Funding: $831,378

Australians have faced significant emotional trauma over the past two years. Unfortunately, treatments for stress induced psychiatric illness remain poor.

By establishing a causal role of hypothalamic PVN-CRH cells in stress induced psychopathology independent of the stress hormones, these studies will significantly shift the current dogma in psychiatry.

This could lead to new studies and therapeutic opportunities for the treatment of stress-related disorders including depression and PTSD.


Associate Professor Brett Graham

Funding: $738,587

Understanding how touch and pain signals pass through the spinal cord is critical in pain treatment, especially for touch-evoked pain. Our current understanding focuses on small circuits of spinal nerve cells, even though we know touch and pain activate much larger networks to produce signals that reach our brain.

This project will decode network-level signalling of touch and pain in the spinal cord by studying activity in large nerve cell networks using imaging and complex systems analysis.


Dr Lizzie Manning

Funding: $644,116

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is associated with disturbances in different areas of flexible behaviour, including flexible actions (compulsions), threat responses (obsessions) and decision making. The striatum is a brain region that is critical for flexible behaviour, and that is also overactive in OCD.

The research project will analyse how the two distinct functional neural populations in the striatum contribute to different disturbances in flexible behaviour relevant to OCD.


Professor Hubert Hondermarck

Funding: $599,657

Bone metastases are a feared development of prostate cancer that cannot be predicted and for which there is no effective treatment.

In this research project, we will develop an innovative strategy to predict, prevent and treat bone metastases. Our strategy is based on cancer neurosciences and the targeting of nerves in prostate cancer.


Dr Jonathan Paul

Funding: $529,026

Preterm birth is the biggest contributing factor to death and disease among newborns.

This research project will explore the physiological mechanism that controls pregnancy length and is disrupted in preterm birth. It focuses on the involvement of key regulatory proteins that can be targeted by drugs and will determine the potential of these drugs to block preterm parturition.