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Professor Andrew Steer from Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) was awarded the Gustav Nossal Medal (April 2024), which acknowledges leading global health research across infectious diseases, nutrition and vaccine development. Equity Trustees warmly congratulates Professor Steer on this latest award for his important work.

Efforts to control tropical diseases around the globe are slowly bearing fruit thanks to the power of philanthropic funding.

Professor Andrew Steer from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) has been leading a world-first collaborative effort against a common tropical skin infection – scabies. Professor Steer directs the World Scabies Program, which has just completed an initial mass rollout of the antiparasitic drug ivermectin across the Solomon Islands and Fiji.

“Tropical diseases like scabies are relatively neglected diseases that impact on disadvantaged populations,” Professor Steer says. “Tackling those thorny, difficult problems that affect people living in disadvantage is a big focus of my group's work and we've worked hard and been fortunate to attract funding to the area.”

Scabies is a preventable skin infection which infects about 200 million children per year. It is caused by a tiny mite that burrows under the skin, creating an entry point for bacteria which can lead to other issues such as sepsis, kidney disease and heart disease.

“We hope to take scabies from affecting about one in five people in Solomon Islands to about one in 100 and rather than needing to have mass public health drug administration programs, it can be treated on an individual clinical scale.”

In late 2023, nurses and World Scabies Program health workers began a Solomon Islands survey to gauge the effectiveness of the mass drug administration rollout on preventing scabies. Off the back of success to date, nearby countries such as Kiribati and French Polynesia, are also showing interest in similar mass drug administrations.

Funding research salaries through philanthropy allows researchers to focus on important projects

The World Scabies Program was enabled by a $10 million philanthropic grant by the Macquarie Group Foundation in 2019, which was the same year Professor Steer was awarded the $1.25 million Viertel Fellowship.

“The Viertel Fellowship has supported my time and my salary as a researcher. It means I’m able to be independent and can pursue my own ideas and priorities and things that I know are really important in the international context. That's why I feel so fortunate to have received that funding.”

Professor Steer was one of three Australian researchers to be awarded the Viertel Senior Medical Research Fellowship in 2019, which has provided $250,000 in annual funding over five years. The Fellowships are funded by the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation and, sometimes co-funded from other trusts such as the Cross Family Trust and Frank Alexander Charitable Trust.

In 2023, MCRI researchers including Professor Steer secured United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants worth a combined $11.8 million to continue research into how children’s immune systems respond to Group A streptococcus – commonly called Strep A – and to trial treatment for rheumatic heart disease (RHD).

Promising treatments could reduce impact of Strep A and rheumatic heart disease

Strep A is a common bacteria that usually just causes a sore throat, but if left untreated, can develop into life-threatening conditions such as RHD which causes more than 500,000 deaths globally each year.

Professor Steer’s team established a world-first human challenge model which revealed the human body’s immune response to Strep A. “What we now are looking to do is to bring vaccines into that model to see if the vaccine is effective.”

Meanwhile, a major trial in Uganda used handheld ultrasound machines to screen children for RHD. The study found about 8 per cent of children with mild latent RHD went on to develop more severe symptoms compared to just 0.8 per cent for those treated with preventative penicillin.

“It’s a big difference so that's been really important in informing international guidelines and international efforts around screening and early detection for rheumatic heart disease.”

To find out more about Professor Steer’s work at MCRI, reach out to the team here

The Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation is proudly managed by Equity Trustees. A key achievement of the Foundation has been its investment in medical researchers, particularly through its highly competitive, sought after, and prestigious medical research grant programs. With grants providing for the researcher’s salary, as well as some project costs – this offers the fellowship and award recipients invaluable financial security, and the opportunity to focus on their research.