A (transdisciplinary) team approach to volatile analysis for rapid diagnostics

The volatile profile from the human body is considered to change with different disease states.  This has been exploited by researchers through the use of dogs to “sniff out” and diagnose disease, particularly for cancer detection.  My colleagues and I are attempting to achieve the same diagnostic capabilities as dogs, using man-made electronic nose technology.  Recently we have been able to produce superior results to dogs for accurate bladder cancer diagnoses by “sniffing” urine samples.

We can also use electronic nose technology and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry for analysing breath, stool and saliva samples.  The gastro-intestinal tract acts like a chemical factory producing a very wide range of volatile compounds (alcohols, ketones, esters, aromatic compounds), which to varying degrees can enter the blood stream where they can be chemically altered by the liver/other organs and then excreted by the lungs and into the urine via filtering through the kidneys.  Volatiles can also be biosynthesised within the body.

Ultimately, we hope to develop rapid diagnostics that can be applied to gastro-intestinal conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease; infectious diseases of the gut, such as hospital acquired infections; and, diseases of the urinary tract, including prostate and bladder cancer, as well as infections.

The work on volatile analysis for disease diagnosis involves a transdisciplinary team of clinicians, chemists, electronics and software experts, engineers to assist in electronic nose fabrication, statisticians and microbiologists.  It is always exciting – and sometimes challenging – working with such a diverse mix of experts.  The solutions we have achieved from transdisciplinary collaborations have ultimately made this approach worthwhile.  I look forward to sharing some more of my experience with you at the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress in Melbourne soon.


Norman Ratcliffe


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Tackling global health disparities through transdisciplinary research

It was with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation from the Australian Society for Medical Research to speak at their National Scientific Conference in November. I am truly excited to be coming to Australia (for the first time!) and I’m looking forward to being inspired by some of your best scientists and establishing new research collaborations.
The work my team and I conduct brings together engineering, cell biology and physiology to understand how cells sense, respond, and remodel their immediate mechanical and biochemical environments for repair and regeneration. Our work doesn’t stop there: our ultimate goal is to translate our findings to clinics domestically and internationally to impact global health disparities.

In this brief blog post I wanted to highlight some of the transdisciplinary work my group has been doing in HIV/AIDS research. While most people realise that the highest incidence in this disease is in sub-Saharan Africa, many are not aware that the rates are not too different for African-Americans in the United States. Highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) has transformed HIV-infection from a terminal diagnosis to a manageable chronic disease. HIV-infected individuals, however, have shown elevated incidence of heart attacks and strokes. This has even been reported in adolescents who were born with HIV and on ART from birth! Our work seeks to study human cardiovascular events due to HIV infection, and to use animal native artery studies to guide tissue engineered strategies and parse mechanisms that are viral protein mediated from those due to antiretroviral medication side effects. At the same time, as biomedical engineers, we also take into account the influence of mechanical forces (shear stress and blood flow) as well as biochemical mediators that all control cell behaviour.

We’ve also been addressing the need to develop affordable and reliable markers of adherence to antiretroviral therapy (ART), particularly for resource limited settings such as those in South Africa and Ethiopia. This is extremely important to determine which patients are no longer responding to therapy, and will have other applications as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) rolls out to protect HIV-negative individuals at high risk from contracting the virus. Cost will be an important factor to regularly monitor patient adherence. We are currently trialling a system using our cathepsin zymography assay to monitor ART adherence, instead of the currently expensive method of mass spectrometry, or the inexpensive but error-prone method of patient surveys. Working with Dr Denise Evans at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, we have been tracking cathepsin activity in white blood cells from the day of diagnosis to 6, 12, and 24 months out in the same patients while they (hopefully) take their antiretroviral drug ‘cocktail’ regularly. These patients usually have had their cathepsin levels drop after either the six or twelve-month period, and has been a strong indicator of adherence using viral load as the gold standard. This is an excellent example of engineering, biochemistry, technology, AND epidemiology all converging to find solutions to difficult, but impactful problems. Watch this space!

I look forward to meeting many of you in Melbourne soon. All the best,

Manu O. Platt


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Support your ASMR – fostering transdisciplinary research in Australia since 1961

Medical research has transformed massively in the 40 years that I have been in the field. We are now working in bigger groups, across continents and across disciplines. To address the big health-related problems facing humanity, from the ground up, it’s vital to engage in transdisciplinary research. More than ever, medical researchers need to collaborate with scientists and professionals from other sectors and industries; we need to work together to address our national research priority areas.

One of the key objectives of the Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) is to bring different disciplines together at events like their annual National Scientific Conference. This gives the molecular biologists the opportunity to find common ground with the biochemists; it allows the virologists to meet the epidemiologists; and the geneticists can network with biomedical engineers.

This year, the ASMR will be holding their National Scientific Conference within the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress, 16 – 19 November at the Melbourne Convention Centre. Participation will broaden your perspective on what medical research really means in today’s research environment. I unreservedly recommend this conference to you, and encourage you to attend and support your ASMR.

Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC FAA FRS

Peter's Photo

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Why you can’t afford to miss this meeting: AHMRC 2014

Have you had the opportunity to watch the promotional video for the upcoming Australian Health and Medical Research Congress (AHMRC), featuring Laureate Professor Peter Doherty? If not, I urge you to spend three and a half minutes doing so
(link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwqgCaHH4I0 )

In this video, Professor Doherty describes how the research landscape has changed dramatically over the course of his career. The era of transdisciplinary research – or ‘team science’ – is well and truly here. Transdisciplinary research brings together researchers and stakeholders from diverse disciplines to work towards solving a common scientific goal. It can involve professionals from fields not immediately recognised as having a role in medical research, such as physics, material science, mathematics and engineering.

Government and NGO funding bodies see the enormous potential of transdisciplinary research to maximise investment in health and medical research, and facilitate translation into policy and practice. To remain competitive in today’s research environment, scientists must be able to work with investigators from diverse disciplines, and develop boundary-crossing innovative methodologies.

AHMRC 2014 presents an opportunity for you to accelerate your research career! Learn how to engage in transdisciplinary research and fast-track your path to discovery. Congress will open on the afternoon of Sunday 16th November, with a panel discussion featuring internationally renowned experts in transdisciplinary research. From Monday 17th to Wednesday 19th November, symposia will cover the use of “omics” and bioinformatics in transdisciplinary research as well as innovations in this area and in fundamental research, in translation into prevention and therapeutic strategies, and in the epidemiology of chronic diseases. Other sessions range from nanoparticles to photobiology and cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, sleep and mental health, and indigenous health. The Congress program features several professional development workshops, a student breakfast session with Prof Peter Doherty and Prof Josef Penninger, and free oral presentations and poster sessions. For the first time, we are hosting a Congress dinner for all delegates to come together for a great night of food, wine and networking at the Crown River Room.

I hope you can join us in Melbourne at the state-of-the-art Melbourne Conference and Exhibition Centre this November, for AHMRC 2014.

Associate Professor Gilda Tachedjian
Program Organising Convenor, AHMRC 2014


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ASMR NSC 2013 – ‘Silver Tsunami – Can medical research ride the ageing wave?’

Over the next forty years, the transition of the age demographic of the Australian society will continue to change dramatically.  Early last century, fewer than one in 25 of the population were aged >65 years. Today, this group comprises one in every eight Australians. By 2045, almost one in four will be aged 65 years and over. As our community ages, the burden of disease and costs associated with chronic age-related diseases will significantly increase health expenditure, thus strategies to promote healthy ageing are crucial not only for our individual wellbeing, but also for ongoing social and economic stability.                     


Obesity and Diabetes

Obesity and type 2 diabetes are highly prevalent in our aging population. As we are now living longer, these diseases are destined to escalate at an alarming rate and are predicted to have a profound economic and social cost to the Australian community. Highlighting the massive financial burden on society, the cost of obesity in 2008 in Australia was astoundingly >$8.283 billion.  How much emphasis should be placed on the development of anti-obesity therapeutics, when lifestyle modifications, and bariatric surgery are known to be effective in certain individuals?


Invited speakers for the obesity and diabetes theme:

Dr Victoria Cogger (University of Sydney)

A/Prof Greg Cooney (Garvin Institute)

Prof Mark Febbraio (University of Melbourne)

A/Prof Josephine Forbes (Mater Medical Research Institute)

Prof Tony Tiganis (Monash University)


Cardiovascular disease

Despite major advances in the treatment of cardiovascular disease over the last 40 years, it remains the largest cause of death in Australians and is becoming more prevalent due to a fatter and older Australia. Improving the treatment of clinical disease is a major contributor to health care costs for the Australian population, and will not be enough to address the problem. However, strategies to alter diet and lifestyle do offer huge potential for future benefit. Should we be focusing on early screening of subclinical disease and simple, targeted lifestyle modifications in people at a high risk of future cardiovascular disease?


Invited speakers for the cardiovascular disease theme:

A/Prof Juliana Hamzah (WAIMR/University of WA)

Prof John Headrick (Griffith University)

Prof Jonathon Hodgson (UWA)


Bone disease

Degenerative bone diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis constitute a major health problem in Australia. Faced with an ever-ageing population we are now presented with the monumental task of alleviating the huge economic burden placed on our health-care system, with the number of public hospital admissions related to osteoarthritic bone pain and osteoporotic-fractures predicted to escalate within the coming decade. Are we genetically predisposed to bone disease or are they simply a reflection of our poor modern lifestyle?  What is the best treatment option i.e. education and prevention vs. nutroceuticals and pharmaceuticals? While controversy continues to overshadow the use of calcium supplements and long-term dependence on frontline anti-resorptive therapy, we are currently witnessing the dawn of the anabolic era with the emergence of anti-sclerostin therapy, which just might prove to be the “Holy Grail” of modern bone medicine.


Invited speakers for the bone disease theme:

Prof Gustavo Duque (University of Sydney)

Prof David Finlay (University of Adelaide)

Prof Ego Seeman (University of Melbourne)

A/Prof Natalie Sims (St Vincent’s Institute)


Brain disease

With our ageing population, the incidence of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is expected to escalate. The greatest hurdle for slowing the socio-economic cost of this disease is that the underlying causes of the neuronal cell death in AD are still not well understood.  Whilst age is the biggest risk factor, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension have also been linked to developing dementia.  Conversely, increased physical and cognitive activities have been suggested as protective factors. Can medical research identify biomarkers and facilitate early diagnosis in high-risk populations, thereby allowing potential preventative AD therapies to be trialled?


Invited speakers for brain disease theme:

Prof Tony Broe (Neuroscience Australia)

Dr Alan Rembach (University of Melbourne)

Dr Saul Villeda (University of California, San Francisco)


Nutrition, Physical Activity and Inactivity

An unhealthy diet and physical inactivity are key risk factors for most non-communicable diseases. Of the four key areas identified to improve healthy ageing, the Australian Government Preventive Health Taskforce (2009) found that encouragement of healthy lifestyles had the largest potential for improving the health of the elderly.  As we reach older age we have accrued a lifetime of exposure to our dietary and physical activity behaviours and their sequelae. What lifestyle factors are critical drivers of healthy ageing, and at what age to we need to start thinking about them? What constitutes a healthy lifestyle for older Australians and does this differ to younger age groups? What barriers are there to achieving a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle in older age? How do lifestyle risk factors interact with social, demographic, economic, genetic and environmental influences on health? Significant gaps exist in our understanding of behavioural determinants of health in older age – can the large number of leading Australian researchers working in this field fill them? 


Invited speakers for nutrition and exercise theme:

Prof Neville Owen (Baker IDI)

A/Prof Anna Peeters (Monash University)

Prof Gary Wittert (University of Adelaide)


Skeletal muscle disease

A slowing of movement and a gradual decline in muscle strength is often associated with ageing, increasing the risk of injury from falls, a dependence on assistance to complete everyday tasks necessary for independent living, and increases recovery time from illnesses.  Sarcopenia  (age-related loss of muscle mass, strength and functionality) and osteoporosis are tightly linked – when muscle activity reduces it exacerbates osteoporosis, establishing a vicious circle.  However sarcopenia need not be an inevitable part of ageing. Physical activity is essential in preventing sarcopenia, yet it is not the only contributing factor, with hormones, diet, oxidative stress and inflammation also responsible. A multi-disciplinary approach is required to produce greater insight into sarcopenia and its prevention.


Invited speaker for skeletal muscle theme:

Prof Miranda Grounds (University of Western Australia)


Campion-Ma-Playoust Memorial Award

This award was instituted by a motion of the Annual General Meeting of the Ausralian Society for Medical Research in December 1975. It consists of a cash award and a certificate that is presented for the best contribution for an oral and/or poster presentation at the Annual Scientific Meeting by a student member or a member under thirty years of age at the time of the Meeting. Please tick the relevant box on the abstract submission form if you wish to be considered.

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Federal Election 2013

Australia needs smart investment in medical research, not cuts

Hon. Tanya Plibersek, Federal Minister for Health and Medical Research

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise that health and medical research is critical to reducing incidence of disease and suffering, as well as being a major contributor to the strength of our economy.

The question is: How do we keep Australian researchers punching above their weight?

The short answer is we not only need to continue increasing investment in the sector, we also need to be smart about where our precious health and research dollars are going.

To that end we commissioned the Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research, chaired by Simon McKeon. The review’s central theme of embedding health and medical research into all aspects of the health system is one I am particularly keen to advance. I raised this with the state health ministers at our meeting recently.

In the face of increasing international competition, it is only through strategic investment that we will continue to make world-first discoveries such as the Gardasil vaccine, which is now given to both Australian girls and boys to protect against the spread of the HPV virus, and the cochlear implant, bringing the miracle of sound to millions of hearing-impaired children around the world.

Actions speak louder than words, and this Government has continued to make record investments in health and medical research through the implementation of the Clinical Trials Action Group recommendations funding of the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Since October 2012 alone, we have committed funding of nearly $802 million for 1,309 grants for ground-breaking health and medical research across Australia. These investments will ensure that Australia researchers continue to be at the cutting edge of health and medical research in their fields.

NHMRC funding continues to increase over the next four years to a record $814 million in 2016/17 despite the tight fiscal environment.

This figure is almost 25% higher than the annual investment in the NHMRC that Labor inherited from the Howard Government in 2007.

Given the Coalition’s track record, I am concerned that Tony Abbott has only committed to maintaining NHMRC funding at current levels, should he win government on September 14.

Such flat-lining would cost the health and medical research community $88 million between now and 2016-17. That is because if you don’t increase spending every year you actually go backwards as funding fails to keep up with health inflation and growing expenses.

An $88 million cut in funding to health and medical research is something the future health and wellbeing of Australians can ill afford. Rather than punching above your weight, you may instead feel like you’d been kicked in the guts.


Funding H&MR is a priority

Hon. Peter Dutton, Federal Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing

The Coalition recognises that funding for medical research is the best long-term investment a government can make for the health of the Australian people. Consistent, long-term funding of medical research lifts national productivity, improves quality of life and life expectancy and takes pressure off the hospital system. That is why a future Coalition government is committed to protecting Australia’s medical research funding.

As a former Health Minister with an outstanding record on medical research funding support, Tony Abbott remains strongly committed to Australia’s research sector. Despite a tough Budget position, the Leader of the Opposition announced in November 2012 that if elected, the Coalition will quarantine health and medical research from any further reductions in funding.

The previous Coalition Government made funding of health and medical research and building the infrastructure capacity to support it, a priority. It recognised, as the Coalition still does, that health and medical research infrastructure is essential to Australia’s ability to deliver high quality health care now and into the future.

The last Coalition Government increased funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council five-fold from $131 million in 1995-96 to $715 million in 2010-11 after our funding commitments had been implemented. As Health Minister, Mr Abbott announced an additional $905 million for Australian health and research in 2006 and in 2007 provided $485 million in grants to medical research facilities.

Investments in health and medical research make good health and economic sense. It has been estimated that every dollar invested in medical research returns five dollars in economic benefits to Australia. The recent release of the McKeon Review into medical research was welcomed by the Coalition and we will continue to be guided by the 21 strategic recommendations it brought down, particularly as they relate to streamlining processes and cutting red tape.

Breakthroughs in health and medical research may come at any time, but they do not come cheaply and may take years to develop. While the Coalition is committed to returning the Budget to surplus, we also recognise that funding of medical research needs to be consistent and ongoing to ensure Australia does not undermine its capabilities in this field.

Consistent with this, a Coalition Government will provide $35 million to help find a cure for type 1 diabetes. Over 122,000 Australians have type 1 diabetes including 20,000 children. More than 800,000 Australians suffer from both forms of diabetes. Excluding the costs of complications, diabetes costs the Australian health system $1.6 billion annually.

Australia is a world leader in this important area of medical research and the Coalition’s commitment will ensure this continues.

The Coalition’s approach to medical research is in stark contrast to the Gillard Labor Government. In April 2011 rumours circulated that the Gillard government was proposing to slash $400 million from the National Health Medical Research Council’s budget over three years. Rumours of the impending cuts were confirmed privately at the time by at least three Cabinet Ministers to key leaders in the medical research community. It triggered a storm of protest with 7,000 medical researchers and staff participating in public demonstrations around the country.

This attempted cut is one of many Labor should be embarrassed about in the health sector. In the past year they have announced a $1.6 billion cut to public hospital funding, nearly $4 billion from private health insurance and $1 billion from dental health. At the same time, the Government has created 12 new health bureaucracies.

The Coalition is committed to excellence in health and medical research. Sustained investment is essential if we are to retain our scientific talent, generate Australian health discoveries and fully reap the benefits of health and medical research in Australia. Accordingly, the Coalition has committed to provide funding certainty for this important sector if elected to Government.


McKeon Review deserves serious consideration

Hon. Adam Bandt, Greens Deputy Leader & Spokesperson on Science and Research.

The Greens believe science and innovation, particularly health and medical research are critical to our prosperity and our economy. That is why we have worked hard for increased science and research funding and campaigned strongly against cuts to health and medical research.

Here in my electorate of Melbourne, which hosts so much biomedical research, I have worked closely with health and medical researchers to protect NHMRC and ARC funding from the Budget knife. The Discoveries need Dollars campaign put the issue on the national agenda and had a big impact in Canberra. It has been important in subsequent Budget decisions.

Earlier this year I successfully moved a motion in the House of Representatives calling on the government to quarantine health and medical research funding from budget cuts and I have worked hard to use the weight of the Greens in Parliament to ensure funding remains secure.

However, despite this successes government funding to research and development continues to decline and along with Labor’s cuts to universities these are challenging times for the sector.

The Greens believe the recommendations in the McKeon Review all deserve serious consideration. We will go to the forthcoming election with a considered plan to put in place the Reviews key recommendations into action such as:

  • support of Integrated Research centres, sites of excellence in health and medical research;
  • establishment of a Transitional Bio Tech fund to help translate discoveries to widely available cures.

We have also urged the government to take seriously the recommendation to provide an additional $1.5bn per annum for research in the health system.

Overall we would like to see the government to set a target of 3% of GDP for research and development in Australia, bringing us in line with the top research countries in the OECD.


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ASMR President’s Report – Prof Naomi Rogers

As we finalise and submit our NHMRC rebuttals for the 2013 project grant submissions, many of us are now turning our attention to what we will be submitting for the 2014 project grant round. I am sure many people have already been thinking and planning for next year’s grant submissions – getting papers submitted, pulling together preliminary data, continuing with this year’s experiments, and planning new hypotheses, protocols and research teams.

As we work through these annual rituals, I think there are subtle changes in the evolution of our thoughts and priorities compared to several years ago. As we develop our research questions I think many of us start thinking about our research teams earlier, and what novel approaches we will develop to answer these questions. We are moving beyond silos, and single groups tackling these questions. Instead we find ourselves asking more often how else can we answer this? Who can help us test our hypotheses? How can we best move ahead knowledge, understanding, and the ever talked about research translation?

There are a number of fashionable words thrown about: interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary. We hear these words used frequently, often interchangeably, and I think sometimes without a full understanding of the exact meaning of each. I know I have been guilty of this, until recently I was provided with some clear definitions of these words. The word which rang loudest with my neurons was transdisciplinary. Essentially, this terms applies to ‘research undertaken by investigators from different disciplines working together to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological, and translational innovations that integrate and move beyond discipline-specific approaches to address a common problem’.

With greater understanding of this term has come some clarity as to how I may approach research questions and consequently study design using a transdisciplinary approach. I am sure I can hear many people crying out, and saying that this is just the latest fad, that not all research can be transdisciplinary, and a stream of questions, for example how to bring together transdisciplinary teams; which ’experts’ will review transdisciplinary grants; and are there really any benefits to this type of collaboration – is the time form bench to bedside shorter with transdiciplinary research teams tackling a problem?

I agree that not all research can be, or should be transdisciplinary, but I don’t think we should sell it short simply because we are not currently doing it or see a challenge in starting to do it. In fact, I dare say many of us are participating in transdisciplinary research without fully realising it. Have you got consumer input into your research? Are you using technology to conduct your experiments? Have you developed novel statistics to analyse your data? Are you collaborating with clinicians, researchers in related fields or different fields? Then you may already be engaged in transdiciplinary research, at least informally.

I believe the growing interest in transdiciplinary research aligns well with Australia’s health and medical research sector’s broad goals of delivering better health for Australia’s current and future generations. In 2014 the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress, to be held in Melbourne, will highlight how transdisciplinary research is contributing to the study and management of Chronic Disease in Australia. In addition, I think we all saw some elegant examples of transdiciplinary research during ASMR Medical Research Week® this year during Professor Anna Wirz-Justice’s presentations at the Gala Dinners. She spoke about how basic research findings led to recognition of medical conditions, diagnostic criteria for these disorders and subsequent treatments and interventions to slow the rate of symptom progression. Along the way this research included basic researchers, clinical researchers, clinicians, patients/consumers, architects and industry partners.

We are working in an exciting sector, which is always evolving to best answer the health needs of Australia’s and the world’s populations. By working in health and medical research we have all made a commitment to research excellence, and a personal investment in our research. We all need to continue investing our time, enthusiasm, imaginations and trust in our sector.

We know that breakthroughs in research do not come from single researchers working alone. We need to continue to invest in building dynamic, transdisciplinary research teams and collaborations to develop new approaches and achieve new goals in our research. We need to encourage researchers from different disciplines, both within the traditional health and medical research areas, and also from less traditional disciplines, such as physics, engineering and computer systems, as well as consumers and industry partners, to come together to tackle health questions from multiple angles, and push the boundaries of scientific enquiry and discovery.

Now is the time for us all to invest in health and medical research. The return on these investments will be numerous and multifaceted – new research discoveries and application and translation of these research findings; improved health and well being for the current and future generations of Australians; and a strong, and internationally recognised health and medical research sector we will be proud of, and proud to be a part of.

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ASMR President on 2013 Federal Budget

This year continues to be a challenging year for the Health & Medical Research sector. The Federal Budget, announced this week, has provided some reassurance, with funding into the NHMRC maintained, although in real terms this does represent a decrease in funding. At the Post Budget Briefing in Canberra on Thursday Minister Plibersek outlined the increased investment in funding for cancer research and cancer care included in the 2012-2013 Federal Health Budget. This funding will be directed towards prostate cancer research centres, the breast care nurses initiative in collaboration with the McGrath Foundation, Canteen youth cancer network, lung cancer, bowel cancer, cervical cancer screening, and regional cancer centres. In addition, funding will be dedicated to addressing the high rates of eye disease, rheumatic fever and HPV infection in indigenous Australians. Unfortunately Question and Answer time was cut short after just one question when the Ministers needed to leave the briefing to vote in Parliament.

In previous discussions with the Federal Health Minister, the Hon Tanya Plibersek, she has reiterated the Federal Government’s support for Health & Medical Research, and the vital role it plays in improving the health and well-being of all Australians, and while there have been no increases in investments, there has been a maintenance of funding. ASMR is continuing to advocate to both sides of Government for sustained investment in our sector, with investment in the NHMRC pegged to the Federal Health Budget. 

Funding for Health and Medical Research has not been completely untouched in recent times, however. The administrative change in the timing of NHMRC payments to institutions has been felt by many of the MRI’s, and in particular many of the smaller MRI’s. This change in the timing of NHMRC funding, and the subsequent financial impact on the affected institutions, comes at a time when we in the Health & Medical Research Sector are faced with a number of financial challenges.

In his response to the Federal Budget the Hon Tony Abbott noted that ‘Australia’s health researchers have saved hundreds of lives through breakthroughs in everything from infectious diseases to cancer vaccines to ulcer treatments.’ It is good to see Australia’s heath and medical research sector getting acknowledgement at the Federal level, and this being communicated to the Australian public. We, as sector, must continue to promote Australia’s world class researchers and research findings to Government and to the public at every opportunity.

The ASMR Directors continue to engage our Federal politicians about the importance of Health and Medical Research in Australia, and the need for further investment in our sector and a sustainable funding model. In addition to our political activities, it is important to also continue with our roles as advocates for Australia’s Health and Medical Research sector in the scientific and public arenas. Australia has numerous world class researchers across the breadth of health and medical research. Some recent work from Australian Health & Medical researchers include:

– Safety testing in humans of a drug that has been shown to reduce cancer growth in mice and may be a future treatment for skin cancer in humans (University of Sydney)
– Swimming increases lung function and fitness in children and adolescents without affecting severity or control of asthma (University of Tasmania)
– Understanding how a key protein (p53) protects against cancer (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute)
– Progress towards developing a bionic eye to help blind people to see (Monash Vision Group)
– Identification of processes underlying neuronal firing in the brain, and how dysfunction in this process may be linked with altered neuronal firing in patients with schizophrenia (University of Queensland and Garvan Institute of Medical Research)
– Up to 10% of the population suffers from learning disabilities, including dyslexia, dyscalculia and autism (University of Melbourne)
– Development of 3D technologies to ‘print’ custom made human body parts, with printing of muscle cells and nerve cells 3 years away and organs just over 10 years away (University of Wollongong and St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne)
– Eating dark chocolate increases feelings of calmness and contentedness, due to the polyphenols (Swinburne University of Technology)
– There is a greater risk of cardiovascular disease due to exposure of passive cigarette smoke in teenage girls than teenage boys (University of Western Australia)
– Poor maternal food choices during pregnancy and breast feeding may program poor eating habits via addiction to high fat and sugar levels in their children (University of Adelaide)
–   There may soon be a blood test developed to allow for the early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease (Researchers from the Australian Imaging and Biomarkers Lifestyle (AIBL) study of ageing – a collaboration of 5 Australian research institutions)

Dementia continues to be a focus for many researchers and clinicians in Australia, as well as the wider community. Much research is focussed on early detection and early interventions designed to slow down progression of neurodegenerative symptoms. It is predicted that by 2040 dementia will be the leading cause of disability in Australians, ahead of cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression (Access Economics: The Dementia Epidemic 2010). Reflecting the significance that dementia will likely to play in Australia’s future health arena, and the importance of research now into this debilitating disorder, dementia has now been listed as Australia’s 9th National Health Care Priority.

With ASMR Medical Research Week(R) rapidly approaching we once again have the opportunity to see some fantastic science from Australia’s up and coming researchers. I encourage all of you to attend the ASMR Scientific meetings in your state and support early career researchers as they present their latest research. This years ASMR Medalist, Prof Anna-Wirz-Justice, is an inspiring researcher and I am looking forward to hearing her presentations at the Gala Dinners. I look forward to meeting many of you during ASMR Medical Research Week(R) at the Gala Dinners and Canberra National Press Club Presentation.

Professor Naomi Rogers,
ASMR President

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ASMR Newsletter Extra – Social media and the Life Scientist

Most of us use some form of Social Media in our everyday life, but how might it enhance our scientific careers?  This was the subject of a workshop entitled ‘ Social Media for the Life Scientist’ held by the Australian Society for Stem Cell Research (ASSCR) during the 2012 AHMRC in Adelaide. 

Speakers were:


Day job:

On twitter as:

Blogs at:

Sarah   Keenihan

Freelance   writer



Noby Leong

PhD student   (University of Adelaide) and blogger



Paul   Knoepfler

Stem cell   researcher (University of California) and high profile blogger



So what did each of these presenters bring to the forum?

Paul, appearing via Skype, gave a guided tour of his blog, ipscell.com, where he comments on high profile stem cell papers and methods, political issues that impact stem cell science, ethics, clinical trials and unregulated stem cell therapies. He also uses his blog to educate the public about stem cells. Paul said that blogging probably took over an hour of his time daily, but that the engagement it afforded with other scientists and the public was very rewarding. Asked whether he thought that his posts could ever have negative impact on his career (for example when critiquing the work of others), he indicated that he wouldn’t post something that he wouldn’t be willing to say to someone directly.  He also stated that his University had been generally supportive of his often highly political blog.

Sarah Keenihan extended the discussion about University policies on Social Media use by staff and students. She pointed out that you could be held accountable for comments made using personal social media if they are deemed to represent your University in a bad light. Sarah also fielded questions about keeping personal social media outlets separate from your professional ones.  She suggested using some forms of media such as twitter, blogs, and science forums for presenting professional views, while perhaps keeping other outlets such as personal Facebook profiles private. 

Noby Leong talked about making personal connections via twitter and blogging.  He valued the immediacy of twitter for venting the day-to-day frustrations (or triumphs) of lab-work.  Both Noby and Sarah discussed the challenges of tweeting something interesting and meaningful in 140 characters:  it takes practice to do it well. Similarly, blogs need to be kept fresh and interesting to maintain an audience.

Noby and Sarah discussed using Twitter as a networking tool.  Noby said that he found himself tweeting with people that he would never have made a connection with otherwise, and that for young investigators, tweeting is a way to break the ice that is easier than the ‘cold-calling’ approach of emails. Even at conferences, participating in twitter conversations relating to the presentations may make it easier for junior scientists to approach other delegates in person between sessions or at mixers. Sarah also suggested that once you are familiar with Twitter and want to take it a step further, you can refine your experience and make it more streamlined by:

  • Using hashtags (#) to follow specific topics;
  • Creating lists of people you follow to manage your stream;
  • Participating in organised chats, such as #onsci and #phdchat;
  • Using platforms such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck; and
  • Using Storify (storify.com) to see and create permanent archives. 

Sarah also recommended some sources of further information:



Further reading

Social Media for Marketing   Science, S. Keenihan & K. Alford

Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities. A guide for   academics and researchers, A. Mollett, D. Moran, P. Dunleavy

Training for scientists

Online social media training course for Australian scientists

Who should I follow to get started on twitter? 

  (curated account through which scientists live-tweet their daily work   activities)

  (Dr Darren Saunders, scientist at The Garvan Institute)

  (Dr Krystal Evans, scientist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute)

  (Dr Cameron Webb, scientist at Sydney University & Westmead Hospital)

  (Dr Heather Bray, science communicator/researcher at University of Adelaide)

  (community of scientists around the world ‘doing science online’)

  (Blogs Editor at Scientific American, isiting Scholar at NYU school of   journalism, organiser of ScienceOnline)

Who does science on   Facebook?

Impact of Social Sciences:   maximizing the impact of academic research



Australian Society for Medical Research

So what were the take home messages?

  1. Blogging about science can be rewarding but also time consuming – you must decide what you want to achieve with your blog, how much time you can devote to it, and be sure it is enhancing, not overwhelming your professional life;
  2. Twitter is not just for following news and trends but is also a useful networking tool;
  3. Think before you tweet – your comments stay in the twitter-sphere;
  4. Check your University’s or relevant Institution’s social media policy before launching into it;
  5. Consider creating a boundary between your personal and your professional online presence;
  6. Social media is becoming integral to scientific communication, jump in and see what it can do for you.

Dr Robyn Meech & Dr Sarah Keenihan

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Message to ASMR Members from Professor Naomi Rogers, ASMR President

On Friday 5th April, the Honourable Tanya Plibersek released the long awaited final report from the McKeon Review, dated February 2013.

ASMR’s vision is that health and medical research is part of the whole of health, underpinning the preventative, screening and treatment strategies which  improve patient outcomes and contribute to Australia’s economic wellbeing. We agree that health and medical research should be embedded in a health system where policy is informed by evidence.

ASMR supports the McKeon reviews recommendations to:

  • establish sector leadership  and governance
  • establishment of IHRCs
  • research focused health professionals
  • accelerating clinical trial reform
  • supporting and possibly expanding national HMR priorities or strategic topics
  • strategies around workforce
  • streamlining competitive grant process, longer grant duration and funding of indirect costs
  • enabling infrastructure and capabilities
  • enhancing public health research and health services research
  • enhance commercialisation environment
  • attract philanthropy and other investment sources

The ASMR believes that efficient leadership and governance of the sector is not best addressed by new or additional layers of bureaucracy. A properly resourced NHMRC is capable of fulfilling this role, providing direction and focus, facilitating translation, providing policy advice, driving reforms and monitoring outcomes.

The value of IHRC’s and research focused health professionals is not in doubt but we would hope there is an evidence base for the number of centres and practitioner fellowships recommended. In addition, there are ambiguities around the funding source for these initiatives.

The review recommends that investment in Local Hospital Networks (LHN) and NHMRC be increased to 3-4% of health expenditure but does not clearly define a LHN and the type of research that is/would be funded. Is this research independent to NHMRC funded research? Importantly, the McKeon Review appears not to recommend additional investment in NHMRC. Under the McKeon proposal, NHMRC investment would remain at the status-quo of 0.8% of total health spending, while investment in the vaguely defined LHN research seemingly increases.

The NHMRC has a proven track record of providing exceptional returns on investment (1,2) and in view of the approaching health crisis foreshadowed by the Government’s Intergenerational Reports, it is disappointing that the McKeon Review does not recommend increased investment in NHMRC or address in any detail the challenge of health and aged care expenditure escalating from 9.3% GDP in 2003 to 12.4% in 2033 (3).

Establishing a secured funding model for health and medical research will underpin the administration, infrastructure and workforce needed for a viable and dynamic sector and help to assure the future health and economic needs of our children and children’s children.

ASMR has developed a strong, evidence based business case to lift investment into the NHMRC to 3% of total health expenditure by 2023. We believe this level of investment in a system which has proven its value, is a realistic and achievable approach designed to mitigate both the health and economic impact of the projected escalation in expenditure. 

ASMR embraces the vision of embedding of health and medical research in the health system and the formation of policy informed by evidence. We will continue to push for the acceptance and implementation of our policy platform on behalf of the sector.

Both the summary and full review are available from http://www.mckeonreview.org.au/
Members may have seen recent media references to late payments of NHMRC funding to some MRIs. It is our understanding that this is a purely administrative matter and does not represent any change in the amount of funding to MRIs over the life of the grant.

With best wishes,
Prof Naomi Rogers
President, ASMR

1. Deloitte Access Economics. Returns on NHMRC funded Research and  Development. In: 2011, http://www.asmr.org.au/Publications.html

2. Deloitte Access Economics. Extrapolated returns on investment in NHMRC  medical research. In: 2012, http://www.asmr.org.au/Publications.html

3. Australian Government, The Treasury 2010. Australia to 2050: future  challenges The 2010 Intergenerational Report. In: http://www.treasury.gov.au/igr/igr2010/default.asp

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