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Vital health research wins prestigious NHMRC funding

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The Federal Government has awarded two Curtin University research projects more than $2.73 million in combined National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ideas Grants to investigate new treatments for serious health conditions — including the world’s leading cause of death.

Associate Professor Juliana Hamzah and her team at the Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute (CHIRI) and Harry Pekins Institute of Medical Research are working towards a new treatment for cardiovascular disease: a first-ever drug to clear blocked arteries.

Cardiovascular disease is responsible for an estimated 18 million deaths per year and is often caused by the build-up of plaque in large blood vessels which cannot be reversed — for now.

The team is developing a medicine which targets and shrinks this plaque.

They have successfully engineered a circulating protein to accumulate specifically in the walls of blood vessels where plaque deposits are present.

This drug then triggers plaque breakdown from the arterial wall.

The team will use the NHMRC grant of more than $2.1 million over four years to determine the safety of this treatment and which patients would be most suitable.

If successful, Associate Professor Hamzah said it would be an exciting breakthrough that addresses many of the shortcomings of modern treatments.

“Medications such as statins, for instance, can convert some plaques to a less dangerous type — but plaque regression is minimal,” Associate Professor Hamzah said.

“We are working towards a first-of-its-kind treatment which shows a tantalising ability to reverse plaque build-up without the risk of plaque rupture, which is when a plaque breaks open and causes a blood clot to form, potentially leading to a heart attack, stroke or limb loss.

“We will assess the preclinical risk and benefits, establish therapeutic efficacy and safety, and then develop a proof-of-concept for scalable drug production.”

The NHMRC will also award CHIRI affiliate and Curtin Medical School Senior Lecturer Dr Daniel Brown almost $585,000 over three years to investigate Meniere’s Disease, a hearing and balance-affecting inner-ear disorder that results in sudden vertigo attacks, hearing fluctuation and tinnitus.

The symptoms are thought to be related to a sudden increase in potassium concentration of the inner-ear fluids and can have a significant negative impact on people’s lives, resulting in social withdrawal and depression.

Dr Brown’s team is developing an implantable biosensor for the inner ear, which will monitor the disease’s status in real time.

Dr Brown said there are currently no treatments available to provide effective relief from symptoms or prevent the decline of hearing and balance sensitivity — but new therapeutic drugs are on their way.

He said the timing of when these drugs are delivered to the inner ear will be crucial to their efficacy.

“Our project aims to develop an implantable sensor that can detect a flare-up of inner-ear disease,” he said.

“The sensor will utilise novel Ion Sensitive Electrodes that will monitor changes in the potassium concentration of inner-ear fluids to permit controlled drug delivery to halt disease progression.

“While numerous drug-delivery devices have been developed for the inner ear, and many other wearable drug-delivery devices operate via built-in sensors, implantable inner-ear sensors have yet to be developed.”

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