Institute for Glycomics wins NHMRC Investigator Grants

Scientists at Griffith's Institute for Glycomics have been awarded NHMRC Investigator Grants.

The Institute for Glycomics has been awarded two National Health and Medical Research Council Investigator Grants worth more than $3.5 million to help fight diseases and conditions affecting millions of people globally.

Professor Mark von Itzstein AO
Professor Mark von Itzstein AO

Director of the Institute for Glycomics, Professor Mark von Itzstein AO and his research team aim to develop new antiviral drugs for viruses that cause either seasonal epidemics or pandemics.

“Acute viral infections caused by human influenza viruses (flu), human parainfluenza viruses (croup, bronchitis, pneumonia), and human enteroviruses (hand, foot and mouth disease, hFMD) are a significant health burden on a global scale,’’ Professor von Itzstein said.

“They remain a major threat to humanity, causing significant morbidity and mortality and a high socio-economic impact particularly in the paediatric, elderly and other vulnerable populations. This is primarily due to the lack of effective drugs or vaccines, as well as resistance emergence to existing antiviral drugs.

“Each of these viruses results in high disease burden worldwide. For example, in China, more than 370,000 cases of hFMD were reported in 2018 and there is neither a vaccine to prevent disease nor drug available for treatment.”

Professor von Itzstein’s awarded Investigator research support package of $2 million will target the carbohydrate (sugar)-related pathways essential in the lifecycle of the three viruses to find potential drug candidates.

“This hypothesis has been validated by our discovery of the first ‘designer’ anti-influenza drug, zanamivir and the co-development programs established with our industry partners Grand Medical and China Grand Pharma.”

Dr Thomas Ve

Dr Thomas Ve’s program of research aims to develop new therapeutic strategies against neurodegenerative conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, peripheral neuropathies and traumatic brain injury.

“Neurodegenerative disorders have been predicted by the World Health Organisation to overtake cancer and become the second-most prevalent cause of death in the next 20 years,’’ Dr Ve said.

“When the normal functions of nerve fibres (axons) are compromised by insults such as trauma or chemical toxicity, they breakdown and die.

“Axon loss is common in some of the most prevalent neurological diseases, including peripheral neuropathies, ALS, MS, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease and glaucoma, but there are no current treatments that effectively target axonal breakdown.”

Dr Ve’s awarded Investigator salary and research support package of $1.53 million will enable he and his team to focus on analysing proteins involved in neurodegeneration including one called SARM1, a key executioner of axon degeneration.

“In healthy nerve cells, SARM1 is present but inactive. However, disease and injury can trigger SARM1 activation resulting in rapid breakdown of the “helper’’ molecule known as NAD+, and ultimately lead to destruction of the axon.

“Our research aims to develop inhibitors that prevent axon degeneration. If this can be achieved, it can ultimately lead to new treatments for patients suffering a variety of neurological conditions.”

Translation of this research is supported by a long-term research collaboration with Dr Ve’s industry partner Disarm Therapeutics, whose mission is to create breakthrough disease-modifying therapeutics to treat patients affected by axonal degeneration.