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Top HMRI researchers honoured

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Three academics and a hard-working team were honoured at the recent Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Researcher of the Year awards.

In front of a big crowd of donors, colleagues and community members at NEX, Professor Zsolt Balogh, Associate Professor Matt Dun and Dr Rachel Sutherland each secured $20,000.

Professor Aaron Sverdlov and Professor Doan Ngo’s unit, which is exploring cardio-protective drug therapies for cancer patients, collected $30,00.

Professor Doan Ngo and Professor Aaron Sverdlov.

“These awards recognise the diligence, determination and commitment of these researchers in seeking answers to some of our biggest health challenges,” HMRI Director and Institute CEO Professor Frances Kay-Lambkin said.

“I congratulate all the winners for their lasting impact on improving the wellbeing of our community.”

The major gong for 2023, the HMRI Award for Research Excellence, went to Professor Balogh from the Injury and Trauma research program.

The Director of Trauma at John Hunter Hospital and Professor of Surgery at the University of Newcastle will utilise the money towards better post-surgical outcomes for patients.

“My aim is to get polytrauma recognised as a disease by the community, health care professionals, policy makers and by the World Health Organisation (WHO),” he said.

“This will provide the necessary attention and focus on the prevention, treatment and research on the most severely-injured patients.

“With our program, we are working on every possible angle of injury and trauma from prevention to rehabilitation.

“My special focus is to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms of how kinetic energy causes systemic inflammation and auto-destruction in living organisms and apply specific preventive and counteracting interventions.

“I’m fascinated by the two billion years’ symbiotic relationship of our cells with mitochondria, which are governing our cellular energetics, cell division and cell death.

“We are developing a comprehensive program to restore injured cell, tissue and organ functions by restoring/reprogramming mitochondrial health.”

The Director’s Award for Mid-Career Research went to Associate Professor Matt Dun.

The Director’s Award for Mid-Career Research went to Associate Professor Dun for his work in Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), an aggressive form of brain cancer.

“My research (at the University of Newcastle) is concentrated on developing new anti-leukaemia drugs and determining their mechanism of action, synthesised in collaboration with the University of New South Wales,” he explained.

“This targeted anti-cancer approach is complemented by a program of discovery research focused on furthering our understandings into how common gene mutations regulate the growth, survival and proliferation of cancer cells.

“I’m also interested in how normal healthy stem cells stored in the bone marrow grow and develop (cellular signalling) in response to signals or growth factors from the immune system.

“Hence, I have a research program studying the molecular switches regulated by the activity of protein phosphatases.

“Finally, all of the complex and intricate activities of our cells (cellular physiology) are regulated through the actions of proteins, therefore I’ve a significant interest in methods that help us study the composition and function of proteins.

“Techniques such as mass spectrometry and biochemical techniques that can help us to understand the function of individual proteins and proteins that form complexes.

“The end goal is to take one of our basic research discoveries and translate it into an improved health outcome for our community.”

Dr Rachel Sutherland collected the HMRI Award for Early Career Research.

Dr Sutherland collected the HMRI Award for Early Career Research in a bid to prevent childhood obesity.

The Hunter New England Local Health District nutrition program manager’s currently involved in the scalable nutrition campaign SWAP IT, which helps parents pack healthy school lunchboxes for their children.

Parents are encouraged and supported to swap out nutrient-poor foods for healthier alternatives.

“The food children consume at school impacts on their concentration, health and wellbeing—now and into the future,” she said.

“More than 85% of kids take a packed lunch every day; however, packed inside are more than three servings of energy-dense, nutrition-poor snack foods.

“Making one to two simple swaps daily can have an enormous impact at a population level, both in terms of health, education and wellbeing.”

The HMRI Foundation Research Team Excellence Award went to the Newcastle Centre of Excellence in Cardio-Oncology led by Professors Sverdlov and Ngo, along with PhD and post-doctorate students, early career, mid-career and senior researchers.

HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.

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