Celebrating grant success on the national stage in 2020

The Institute for Health Transformation is celebrating another successful year as it continues to feature strongly in national competitive research funding programs.

Written by Toni Penny

2020 was another successful year for the Institute for Health Transformation as it continued to feature strongly in national competitive research funding programs. Professor Anna Peeters, Director of the Institute, congratulated all involved in the successful grants.

“It’s very satisfying to see our researchers receive a number of research grants in partnership with our health sector, government, community and industry partners to drive significant transformations in how we address prevention and care. The strong focus on health equality throughout these successful proposals speaks to the significance of this value for our Institute,” she said.

“I would also like to acknowledge the hard work and persistence of all our researchers in the face of the difficulties we all experienced throughout the year.”

Professor Samantha Thomas, and Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer and their teams each received Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grants. As well as being excellent quality research, both their projects focus on an important area of expertise and impact across the Institute – the commercial determinants of health. Professor Thomas’ project, valued at $284,000, looks at the impact of gambling advertising, promotions, and sponsorship on children. A/Prof Backholer’s team, which includes Associate Professor Adrian Cameron, Associate Professor Gary Sacks and Professor Anna Peeters, received $355,000 to look at ‘Food and beverage price promotions: An untapped policy target’.

Dr Kate Anderson and her team were successful in a $109,000 grant as part of the MRFF 2020 Communication Strategies and Approaches Round. The team was thrilled that the MRFF recognised the value of research into health promotion and health protection for Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) residents with an intellectual disability.

“This population has been traditionally excluded from public health research, yet experiences high risk during disease outbreaks due to shared living environments, medical and socio-economic vulnerabilities, and the many visitors and carers entering their homes. As we’ve seen in both the disability and age-care sectors, infections that take root in residential care can easily spread to other facilities and the local community,” Dr Anderson said.

“Working in partnership with residents and service providers, we aim to develop a communication strategy that will ensure safer community participation for SDA residents during public health crises, as well as provide reassurance and minimise the burden of disease outbreaks on this community. While this project has been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, our research will also explore how recent insights and achievements in inclusive health communication could translate to other infection outbreaks in residential care (such as norovirus, rotavirus and influenza), and to other healthcare settings used by people with intellectual disability.”

Many of the Institute’s researchers were also part of successful MRFF Grant teams led by other Institutes and Universities, resulting in approximately $2M of research income.   

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant success was also achieved by many of our researchers, including Professor Peeters, who was awarded a $1.7M Investigator grant to continue her research program into healthy food retail.

“In Australia, two in three adults live with overweight or obesity and unhealthy diet is the major modifiable contributor to death and disability. We know that retail marketing strategies like food product packaging, pricing and other promotions have a major impact on what we choose to buy and eat. This project aims to build the novel evidence required to implement effective strategies to improve the healthiness of food provision at scale,” Professor Peeters said.

Dr Melanie Nichols, Dr Victoria Brown and A/Prof Backholer were awarded a $1.3M NHMRC Ideas Grant for their project PRECIS: Precision Evidence for Childhood obesity prevention Intervention. This project will bring together global knowledge on community-based obesity prevention to identify the most effective and equitable approaches to create healthier communities.

“Childhood obesity remains a pressing challenge that will have long lasting impacts on populations and health systems. For over 20 years, the Institute’s Global Obesity Centre and its predecessors, as a WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, have led the world in designing and implementing community-based responses, effectively preventing unhealthy weight gain and promoting healthier behaviours.” Dr Nichols said.

“PRECIS provides us with an incredible opportunity to synthesise the evidence from trials in more than 120 community to decisively move the field forward. We will be working with colleagues at Deakin University’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Institute to apply cutting edge machine learning techniques, and leveraging our strong international collaborations to identify strategies that can effectively and efficiently prevent obesity across diverse populations.”

The team also includes other Associate Investigators from the Institute including Professor Peeters, Professor Steve Allender, Professor Marj Moody and Professor Liliana Orellana.

A/Prof Gary Sacks, A/Prof Adrian Cameron, A/Prof Backholer, Professor Peeters and Mrs Jaithri Ananthapavan have been awarded a four-year NHMRC Partnership grant: Supporting food companies to implement policies for improving population nutrition.  This project will conduct a randomised-controlled trial to assess the effects of providing tailored support to food companies to improve their nutrition-related policies and practices. The overall aim is to improve the healthiness of the food supply, and thereby improve population diets in Australia and New Zealand. The project will be conducted in partnership with the Australian Government Department of Health, and VicHealth.

Dr Jennifer Browne received a National Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for her project, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander food and nutrition policy: Translating evidence into action’. During her Fellowship, she will review the qualitative literature and undertake food policy workshops with Victorian Aboriginal communities, while continuing to work closely with VACCHO and Indigenous researchers at Deakin such as Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Race Relations, Yin Paradies. Dr Browne has long been an advocate for Aboriginal health equality and levelling the playing field in access to healthy food and nutrition.

“It’s clearly easier for some people to be able to make healthy choices than it is for others,” she said. “What I’m interested in is how we can use state and national policies to level the playing field so that everyone is able to live a healthy life.”

The Institute’s Deakin Health Economics received two Victorian Cancer Agency Early Career Research Fellowships, one for Dr Nikki McCaffrey and the other for Dr Anita Lal.  Their research will inform policymakers about the value for money and equity impacts of different approaches aimed at reducing the burden of cancer and improving the quality of life of people living with cancer and their families.

Researchers were also involved in successful grants led outside of the Institute as summarised below.

Professor Elizabeth Manias was part of a successful UNSW Ideas Grant for enhancing safety and care quality for culturally and linguistically diverse cancer consumers: A consumer engagement approach. Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) consumers are at high risk of harm resulting from the healthcare they receive. Effectively engaging patients in their care is a recognised way to enhance patient safety, but current approaches are not suitable for CALD consumers. The team will address this by designing patient engagement strategies to address safety issues for, and in partnership, with CALD cancer consumers in six services and policy makers in New South Wales and Victoria.

Dr Mary Lou Chatterton from Deakin Health Economics was a Co-Investigator on a NHMRC Partnership Grant led by the UNSW which is part of an Australasian Partnership for Improving Outcomes in Severe Depression valued at $909,752.