Hunter health trailblazers crowned with national honours

Hunter health trailblazers crowned with national honours

Two University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) researchers who are trailblazing in their fields to improve the health and wellbeing of communities around the world, have been awarded prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) awards.

Announced last night at a gala event in Canberra, world-leading dietitian researcher Laureate Professor Clare Collins received the NHMRC Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grant Award for Leadership in Clinical Medicine and Science.

Professor of Nursing Brett Mitchell, who is investigating strategies to prevent healthcare acquired infections, was awarded the Peter Doherty Investigator Grant Award for Emerging Leadership.

The Research Excellence Awards are presented annually to top-ranked researchers and teams following peer review of applications to NHMRC’s highly competitive grant schemes.

University of Newcastle Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Zee Upton said the innovative research led by Laureate Professor Clare Collins and Professor Brett Mitchell was making a profound impact on the health and well-being of thousands of Australians.

“The NHMRC Research Excellence Awards are highly prestigious, celebrating excellence and leadership in the health and medical research sector,” Professor Upton said.

“On behalf of the University of Newcastle community I congratulate both Laureate Professor Collins and Professor Brett Mitchell on their awards, which deservedly recognise the paths they are each forging in their respective fields,” she finished.

HMRI Director Professor Mike Calford said both recipients were well deserving of their awards.

“Both professors Collins and Mitchell are leaders in their fields, and I congratulate them on behalf of everyone at HMRI,” Professor Calford said.

“Hospital acquired infections and diet related disease are two important fields of research with clear outcomes for individuals and community health. It is gratifying to see Hunter researchers continually at the top of the pack in terms of research and recognition,” he finished.


Laureate Professor Clare Collins

NHMRC Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grant Award (Leadership in Clinical Medicine and Science)

Currently, 7 million Australians live with at least one diet-related chronic disease risk factor, while 27,500 die from causes that were directly due to unhealthy dietary patterns.

Given that poor nutrition contributes to four of the top five burden of disease risk factors, the potential for any improvement in national dietary patterns to improve health and reduce healthcare costs is enormous.

Laureate Professor Collins, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and nutrition researcher specialising in eHealth, focuses on nutrition technologies and methods to support personalised medical nutrition therapy, including dietary biomarkers and telehealth models of care.

Her research, which targets under-served population groups based on life-stage, socio-economic status, and geographic location, will generate new knowledge on cost-effective models of care to reduce diet-related health risks.

“If you could click your fingers and instantly every Australian was able to eat healthily in a way that aligned with nutrition guidelines, estimates from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare are that the disease burden attributed to heart disease would drop by 50 per cent and type 2 diabetes would drop by 25 per cent,” Laureate Professor Collins said.

Prior to her research, no Australian dietary assessment tools could measure usual dietary patterns in real-time or generate personalised reports, comparing data to national nutrition recommendations. None had been tested using dietary biomarkers.

“The tools my team created are transforming how dietary advice is delivered both in-person and for telehealth,” Laureate Professor Collins said.

“My vision is to translate precision and personalised nutrition technologies that improve diet-related health and well-being into settings that are easily accessible for health care practitioners and vulnerable communities.”

“My greatest hope is that these next generation nutrition technologies will transform access to cost-effective models of nutrition support available through Medicare, hospitals, and primary healthcare.

“I hope healthcare professionals will be eager to refer people to use them because they see first-hand the improvements in patient and client nutrition-related health and wellbeing,” she explained.

The world’s most cited dietitian researcher, Laureate Professor Collins leads the HMRI Food and Nutrition Research Program.  She is an elected fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, Nutrition Society of Australia and Dietitians Australia; and is a leading nutrition science communicator.


Professor Brett Mitchell

Peter Doherty Investigator Grant Award (Emerging Leadership)

Today, one in 10 patients in an Australian hospital acquires an infection while in hospital. The burden of healthcare related infection is significant, with associated morbidity, mortality and, for those acquired in hospitals, increased length of stay.

Despite being common and affecting 165,000 Australians a year, strategies to prevent healthcare acquired infection are underpinned by low quality evidence.

Professor Mitchell’s research is tackling the looming global threat of microbial resistance and emerging infections by researching methods to prevent infections from occurring in the first instance. His research has a particular focus on increasing patient safety by preventing and controlling infections within hospitals, healthcare settings and businesses.

His expertise has also contributed to the design of a portable single isolation room, used extensively in the United Kingdom as part of the COVID-19 response.

“My research program consists of three discrete, inter-related projects. The work will provide evidence for practical measures to reduce common infections – urinary tract infection, pneumonia as well as improving cleaning in healthcare.”

“The program of work will provide a strong foundation for transformations in clinical practice and policy, in Australia and internationally. This will, in turn, reduce patient morbidity and mortality, control healthcare expenditure and help to prevent antimicrobial resistance.”

“Through this award, my research and working alongside patients, clinicians, academics and industry, I hope we can reduce the burden of infection for patients who receive healthcare across the county,” he said.

Professor Mitchell has received national awards for his research, including a Research Australia’s Health Services award in 2021 and an Australian Financial Review Higher Education Award for industry engagement.



The NHMRC Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grant Awards honour the Australian Nobel Laureate Professor Elizabeth Blackburn AC FRS FAA FRSN, a molecular biologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 jointly with Professor Jack Szostak and Professor Carol Greider for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.  These awards were established to promote and foster the career development of female researchers.

The NHMRC Peter Doherty Investigator Grant Awards honour the Australian Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC FRS FAA FMedSci, a researcher in the field of viral immunology. He received the Albert Lasker Award for basic medical research in 1995 and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Rolf Zinkernagel in 1996 for their discoveries concerning the specificity of cell-mediated immune defence. Professor Doherty was named Australian of the Year in 1997.


IMAGE | Laureate Professor Clare Collins

Hunter Medical Research Institute

The Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) is a translational research institute. Since 1998, its pioneering partnership with the University of Newcastle and Hunter New England Local Health District has delivered key translational health and medical research and technology closely aligned to community health needs.

Throughout Newcastle and the Hunter, more than 1200 clinical and biomedical researchers and support staff are employed across seven HMRI Research Programs, striving to prevent, cure and treat a diverse range of serious illnesses by translating research findings made in the laboratory and through advanced imaging techniques, into real health treatments and preventative strategies for the community.

HMRI provides vital funding and facilities to fuel research, but the heart and soul of the Institute are people, the researchers, the generous donors and supporters, the committed volunteers, and the patients who participate in trials and ultimately benefit from the research results.

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