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Media Release

October 29 2009

UniSA grows NHMRC research in health and wellbeing

UniSA has just been awarded more than $3.5 million for health research funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Projects to be funded range from an examination and evaluation of some behavioural factors involved in developing fitness, right through to research into the physical properties of the surfaces of disease- causing cells.

UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Høj said the successful grant announcements are exciting in their potential to make an impact on human health.

“I want to congratulate our successful lead researchers and their teams because it means they can further explore and develop important knowledge in their fields,” Prof Høj said.

“Their success is also great news for the University. During the past five years there has been a tenfold growth in UniSA’s NHMRC research funding which is a testament to our commitment to build our health and medical research capacity to deliver great health outcomes for the State and Australia.

“These outcomes add to UniSA’s recent success in attracting more than $2 million in NHMRC Partnership funding, placing us at the forefront in SA for research which will translate into new health care policy.”

A key project to be led by Professor Tim Olds will examine the curious finding that organised physical fitness programs or regimes may do little to increase an individual’s overall physical activity.

The research project hopes to build on results from a few small adult exercise studies from the 1980s and 90s that showed organised fitness or activity training programs often resulted in people undertaking less everyday incidental activity and not increasing overall physical activity.

Professor Olds says the research will be the first of its kind in Australia and will be qualitatively different from earlier studies because it will look at activity in a real world context.

“We want to determine how people manage their ‘time/exercise’ budget,” Prof Old says.

“We hope to unpack the ecology of exercise so that we can determine what happens to other activities when people start to engage in a fitness program – do they fit in an hour’s exercise by sleeping less, watching less TV, or do they forego other physical activity such as the gardening or walking the dog.

“Understanding how people behave and why, may lead to the development improved exercise programs.”

Another project focussing on metabolic health will be led by UniSA Research Chair in Social Epidemiology, Professor Mark Daniel. This project will study the mechanisms that explain the link between residential area features and the metabolic syndrome (obesity and high blood pressure, lipids and glucose), related to cardio-metabolic diseases. Evidence shows there is more prevalence of metabolic syndrome in disadvantaged areas but the reasons for this have not been established. This project will evaluate the behavioural and psychosocial mechanisms that might independently and jointly explain the association between "place" and metabolic syndrome.

Other successful projects at UniSA include Dr Susan Hillier’s investigation into the effectiveness of intensive rehabilitation therapies in supporting stroke victims’ recovery and improved mobility. Engaging in a large, multi-centre, national clinical trial, her research team will look at two ways of delivering more intense rehabilitation and compare their physical and economic effectiveness with the standard care provided to people after they have a stroke.

Further exploring the relationships between mothers who enter pregnancy with high body mass index and the risk of their babies’ developing of adult obesity, UniSA Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Innovation Professor Caroline McMillen and Dr Janna Morrison will lead a research project to determine why mothers who enter pregnancy overweight have babies who are at greater risk of obesity in later life. . The project will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the relationships between heavy mothers, the birth weight of their babies, and the likelihood of adult obesity in those children.

In an exploration of the human immune response Professorial Research Fellow in Molecular Medicine Doug Brooks and Dr Tetyana Shandala will be exploring how genes in the common fly may help to solve the human immune malfunctions that lead to conditions such as asthma and some cancers. In terms of the genes controlling immunity, mammals have amazing similarities with flies. Working with a newly discovered regulator of fly immunity the researchers hope to define how this gene functions in the immune system. This project will identify points of intervention for treating immune system disorders.

Funding support has also been awarded to researchers at UniSA’s leading Ian Wark Research Institute.

Dr Benjamin Thierry has been awarded support for an investigation of circulating tumour cells. Using advanced micro-fabricated concepts, this project aims to develop a platform technology to capture tumour cells circulating in the blood of cancer patients. Although present only in extremely small numbers, these cells provide invaluable insights into the patho-physiology of the disease and provide vital diagnostic and prognostic information. Molecular analyses of these cancer cells could ultimately enable the design of improved and personalised cancer treatments.

In a project that focuses on the fundamental understanding of signals involved in the directed migration of cells during cell recognition, tissue development or of detaching cancer cells, Professor of Surface Science from the Ian Wark Research Institute, Hans Griesser; Professor Rob Short from the Mawson Institute Dr John Hayball from the Sansom Institute and their teams will create and characterise artificial systems of designed flat surfaces coated with varying densities of different biologically active molecules to study the attachment and movement of cells and tissue along such signal gradients produced via surface coatings on solid carriers. Many development processes and diseases feature migration of cells along gradients of signalling molecules. For example, lymphocytes respond to infection and vaccines, and cancer cells follow gradients. Understanding these properties will enable the design and fabrication of novel devices and laboratory techniques as tools for biologists to study such processes.

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