Media releases

November 28, 2001

Australia's finest young medical researchers

Their research varies from the importance of controlling asthma in pregnant women, reducing resistance to chemotherapy drugs to finding a new cure for malaria.

They are Newcastle-based Vanessa Murphy from the Mothers and Babies Research Centre at the University of Newcastle; Emma Baker from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute in Melbourne; and Marina Tchavtchitch from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane.

They are this year's winners of the Medibank Private Young Medical Researchers Awards, which were announced today at the 40th ASMR Annual National Scientific Conference at the Marriott Hotel on the Gold Coast.

Sponsored by Australia's largest private health insurance fund, Medibank Private, partly to encourage research to stay in Australia, the awards will provide the three young researchers with $5000 worth of international air travel, accommodation and entry to an international conference or conferences of their choice.

The criteria on which the young winners are judged was the scientific merit of their work, the quality of their data, an understanding of where their research fits in the bigger picture and their ability to communicate their work to a non-specialist audience.

Newcastle-based Vanessa Murphy's winning research involves establishing why asthmatic sufferers are at risk of producing smaller babies and having pre-term deliveries.

Vanessa's group has already established that growth of the female fetal is specifically reduced when mothers do not use preventer medication for asthma treatment. This is associated with changes in the function of the placenta.

Vanessa's research is also about understanding why asthma in the mother alters fetal growth and ultimately to understand how fetal growth is controlled in all pregnancies.

Melbourne-based Emma Baker is seeking to understand how changes in cancer cells give rise to resistance to chemotherapy drugs.

What Emma has already established is that the effectiveness of cancer chemotherapy treatment is often lessened by the development of drug resistant proteins which act as "pumps", pumping the chemotherapy drugs out of the treated tumor.

The next phase in the research will be to establish how chemotherapeutic drugs affect the gene for the resistance pump and how this gene can be effectively turned off - re-establishing the effectiveness of the chemotherapy treatment.

One in three people develop cancer and many will receive chemotherapy as part of their treatment.

Brisbane's Marina Tchavtchitch's work is focused on identifying new treatments for malaria, using gene technology.

Currently 2 million people globally die of malaria each year - the worst affected regions being South-east Asia, South America, Africa and Papua New Guinea.

In fact, Microsoft magnate, Bill Gates, has identified malaria has a key area for future funding by his organisation.

To date most treatments have focused on affecting mosquito reproduction, destroying the malaria parasite or stopping the parasite from entering red blood cells.

However, Maria's focus is on comparing the differences in the gene structure of the deadly and the less debilitating strains of malaria and allowing these differences to give an insight into future drug designs.

Medibank Private managing director, Mark Burrowes, says the fund's decision to become involved in sponsoring awards is to promote and encourage young medical researchers who will go on to become tomorrow's scientists.

"It is this group which is often overlooked when it comes to funding and sponsorships, despite the fact that their research is crucial to the development of future drugs and treatments.

"We're hoping that award incentives such as ours will keep the flame alive and provide our young medical researchers with a reason to remain in Australia and go on to make a significant contribution to this country."

Mr Burrowes says Medibank Private's decision to support the awards also reflects the health insurer's increasing focus on good health and prevention.

"We believe that by promoting healthy lifestyles and by encouraging Australians to use the most appropriate and effective treatment and medication, that we will go a long way towards helping to prevent serious illness and unnecessary hospitalization.

"We believe the work of our young researchers mirrors our thrust and so we believe it is important to sponsor awards which honor the young people who are striving to find new cures and help promote the well-being of all Australians."

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