A team of Griffith University researchers has been awarded the prestigious Marshall and Warren Innovation Award at the annual NHMRC Research Excellence Awards dinner last night in Canberra.
The awards recognise excellence in health and medical research by showcasing researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to research in their field.
Associate Professor James St John from the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery and Menzies Health Institute Queensland, with colleagues Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg, Dr Matt Barton and Dr Brent McMonagle have invented a new technology to generate nerve bridges that can be used to repair traumatic injuries to nerves, a devastating injury affecting thousands of people each year.
The researchers were awarded $715,060 in NHMRC funding to test the new technology (comprised of nerve cells) to repair large-gap peripheral nerve injuries in animal models with the aim of progressing to human clinical trials.
“Peripheral nerve injury is a major health problem affecting 3-5% of all trauma cases. As well as trauma, peripheral nerve damage occurs due to cancer or the treatment of cancer,’’ Associate Professor St John said.
“Current technologies are unable to satisfactorily repair most peripheral nerve injuries of any size, but especially large-gap nerve injuries and they fail to adequately restore motor and sensory function.
“About 5000 peripheral nerve injury repair surgeries are conducted in Australia each year, so there is a large unmet need for an effective therapy.
“The NHMRC funding enables us to keep the brilliant scientific team, including Dr Mo Chen who developed the innovative technology during his PhD. We will now test the nerve bridges in comprehensive pre-clinical experiments.”
Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg said: “Despite intense research into the biology of nerve injury, advanced surgical techniques and rehabilitation programs, many peripheral nerve injuries particularly big injuries cannot be satisfactorily repaired. Our overall hope is that the project will demonstrate that nerve bridges are highly effective so we can progress to future human clinical trials.
“Our new technology enables the rapid (six hours) production of cellular nerve bridges up to 30mm in length with a robust structure making them easily handled by surgeons.
“The ends of the nerve bridge rapidly adhere to other cells, including nerve ends, so it is a really simple yet innovative solution” Associate Professor Ekberg said.
Dr Brent McMonagle, an Ears, Nose & Throat surgeon said: “Peripheral nerve injures are common, leading to muscle weakness and sensory effects such as numbness and pain. These effects can be devastating on employability and quality of life, and they pose significant financial costs to the individual and health care system.”
He said the work will occur in parallel with the ground-breaking and equally exciting work on repairing spinal cord injury led by Associate Professor James St John and Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg.
The research underpinning the NHMRC project has been created over several years and made possible by funding from the Perry Cross Spinal Research Foundation, the Clem Jones Foundation, the Motor Accident Insurance Commission and the Catwalk Trust.
The Marshall and Warren Award recognises the most highly innovative and potentially transformative grant from among all the applications nominated for this award in each year’s Ideas Grant scheme. The award is named after Australian Nobel Laureates Professors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.