Centre of Research Excellence grant to boost early treatment of cerebral palsy

Cerebral Palsy Alliance, the global centre of expertise for cerebral palsy, will lead a multidisciplinary research project to establish a $2.5 million Centre for Research Excellence aimed at further decreasing the rate and severity of cerebral palsy.

The 2022 Centres of Research Excellence grants, administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), were announced last week by Federal Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Hon. Mark Butler.

The establishment of a series of Centres of Research Excellence aims to improve health outcomes and promote and translate research into policy and practice. Among the projects will be ‘Directing Research Very Early in Cerebral Palsy’ (DRIVE CP), a five-year health network project led by Cerebral Palsy Alliance.

Rob White, CEO of Cerebral Palsy Alliance, said the grant would enable the further advancement of life-changing research into the early detection and treatment of cerebral palsy.

“Cerebral Palsy Alliance is the largest private funder of cerebral palsy research globally, having committed more than $68 million to the field in the last 17 years. This partnership with the NHMRC will ensure both our team, and Australia’s collaborative network of cerebral palsy experts, will continue the lead the global advancement in the understanding of cerebral palsy,” said White.

Professor Iona Novak, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Chair of Allied Health at The University of Sydney, will serve as Chief Investigator for the project, which brings together a team of Australia’s foremost cerebral palsy experts to collaborate holistically in a host of areas – from genetics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to knowledge translation and implementation.

Cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability globally, affecting the movement and posture of an estimated 34,000 Australians. There is no cure for the condition, and currently, 74% of infants are diagnosed after six months of age – meaning a majority of infants are missing out on early intervention at the most crucial stage of the brain’s development.

The DRIVE CP program seeks to bring forward the age of cerebral palsy diagnosis, which in turn will lead to improved health and wellbeing outcomes across the life of people with cerebral palsy. The program aims to:

  • Implement early diagnosis guidelines and universal screening tests to detect children at high risk of cerebral palsy in the first three months of life, when early intervention yields the best results;
  • Fast-track infants with cerebral palsy into evidence-based rehabilitation clinical trials, and;
  • Turn research findings into practice and policy in partnership with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), through clinical practice guidelines and by harnessing emerging technology to aid in early diagnosis.

Importantly, these goals reflect the priorities identified by people with cerebral palsy and their families in the Australian and New Zealand CP Strategy – to reduce the severity of cerebral palsy, earlier diagnosis of cerebral palsy, and a significant reduction in the time between diagnosis and the provision of intervention.

Professor Novak said the Centre of Research Excellence grant was an exciting opportunity to capitalise on these recent advancements in early diagnosis and treatment of cerebral palsy, and ensure Australia remains at the forefront of cerebral palsy research.

“In recent years Australia has become a global hub of cerebral palsy knowledge, leading the world in reducing the incidence of cerebral palsy and pioneering new approaches to early diagnosis and intervention. We know that people with cerebral palsy and their families want to see lower severity of cerebral palsy, earlier diagnosis and timely interventions – this grant will enable us to deliver on these goals,” she said.

Cerebral palsy affects more than 17 million people globally. Once thought to be unpreventable, significant advancements have been made since Cerebral Palsy Alliance established a research division in 2005. The Australian Cerebral Palsy Register (ACPR), the largest single-country database of cerebral palsy internationally, has found that Australia now has the lowest rate of cerebral palsy globally, falling by 30% in the last two decades.

Amongst the Centre of Research Excellence’s team of twenty investigators, are seven of the world’s top 40 medical experts in cerebral palsy, including Cerebral Palsy Alliance Chair of CP Research, Professor Nadia Badawi AM, and senior research fellow Dr Cathy Morgan, project lead of Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s early diagnosis and intervention program.

Distinguished researchers from CSIRO’s e-Health Research Centre, Curtin University, Deakin University, Griffith University, Monash Children’s Hospital, Queensland’s Department of Health, the University of Melbourne, University of Queensland, Department of Health Queensland and the University of Western Australia will be vital collaborators.

The rate of cerebral palsy in Australia is now 1 in every 700 babies born, down from 1 in 500 just twenty years ago. Professor Badawi said that innovations in Australian clinical trials as part of the DRIVE CP program have the potential to be replicated globally.

“Our vision is to reduce the severity of cerebral palsy to the point where every baby born with CP can hope to lead a full and inclusive life with maximum participation in society. We have come so far in recent years, and this grant will enable us to make further breakthroughs in cerebral palsy interventions,” said Professor Badawi.

“Over the coming five years, we will work together to diagnose cerebral palsy as early as possible through an automated national screening program, then ensure new interventions that reduce severity and improve independence become standard care for infants at risk of cerebral palsy.”

CPA researchers Professor Iona Novak, Professor Nadia Badawi AM, and Dr Cathy Morgan