A total of $4.73 million in funding has been awarded to 25 early and mid-career researchers under the Future Health Research and Innovation (FHRI) Fund WA Near Miss Awards: Emerging Leaders 2023 (WANMA EL) program. 

The WANMA EL program is designed to support Western Australian researchers who have narrowly missed out on a highly competitive National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Investigators grant. WANMA EL funding is provided through one-year Emerging Leaders (EL) Grants and 2 to 3-year EL Fellowships. 

This year, the program awarded 21 WANMA EL $100,000 Grants to be used over 12 months to enhance the NHMRC application.    

Three researchers affiliated with the Perron Institute were awarded EL grants – Dr Sarah Hellewell (Curtin University and Perron Institute), Dr Alex Tang (The University of Western Australia and Perron Institute) and Dr Frances Theunissen (Notre Dame University and the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Innovative Therapeutics at Murdoch University and Perron Institute). 

Dr Hellewell will investigate how to improve the quality of life for those who experience mild traumatic brain injuries and suffer ongoing symptoms for years afterwards – which is up to 50 per cent of people who experience such an injury. 

Dr Hellewell’s project will use new techniques to examine the brain in detail with the aims of predicting recovery and will use MRI to study how these brain injuries change over time. 

Dr Tang’s project is titled: ‘Unravelling the cellular mechanisms of non-invasive brain stimulation’. 

“This will be the first work to describe how magnetic brain stimulation changes the structure and function of human brain cells, and identify which patients are most likely to benefit,” Dr Tang said. 

“I’m very grateful to receive a WANMA grant as it allows an extension of the exciting work we are doing on the human brain. The findings could lead to a more efficient and targeted use of magnetic brain stimulation for the treatment of neurological disorders.” 

Dr Theunissen’s project will focus on identifying genetic markers in genes that play a critical role in maintaining nerve function. In parallel, molecular therapies will be developed to help restore nerve function by down regulating genes that prevent nerve regeneration when cells are damaged in the central nervous system.  

“This unique strategy could provide a paradigm shift in the approach to patient stratification in future clinical trials, allowing the prioritisation of participants that have a similar underlying disease mechanism and are therefore more likely to respond to a precision nerve targeted treatment. 

“Receiving this grant will enable additional resources to be dedicated to this project, hopefully fast-tracking the screening and development of novel therapies for patients.” 

Perron Institute’s Research Director Dr Rebekah Puls says these grants are well deserved for some of the Institute’s impressive researchers. 

“These are exciting projects in highly topical neurological conditions, including traumatic brain injury and concussion, motor neurone disease and mood disorders such as depression. Disorders of the nervous system are currently the leading cause of overall disease burden in the world,” Dr Puls said. 

Congratulations, Dr Hellewell, Dr Tang and Dr Theunissen! 

Photo caption: L-R Dr Sarah Hellewell, Dr Alex Tang and Dr Frances Theunissen.