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Willcox recognised at home and abroad for innovative research

Australian Professor Mark Willcox has been recognised for his research focusing on infection prevention and medical devices, receiving two awards from leading organisations nationally and overseas.

Willcox, a medical microbiologist and director of research at UNSW School of Optometry and Vision Science (SOVS), has been awarded the 2020 Donald R. Korb Award from the American Optometric Association (AOA) for research excellence.

He has also been awarded the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award for the highest scoring Ideas Grant for 2019.

“I was very happy to receive the NHMRC Marshall and Warren Ideas Grant Award, especially as this is not the first time I’d applied for NHMRC funding for similar research. The success rate for the Ideas grants was only 11% this year, so I feel very privileged to have been awarded this grant,” Willcox said.

The Dr Donald R. Korb Award, bestowed by the Contact Lens and Cornea Section of the AOA, recognises an individual who has been an innovator and leader in the field of contact lenses and anterior segment disease.

“It is a great honour … Dr Korb is someone I hold in very high esteem, especially as he has been able to translate so much of his research and clinical knowledge to new products. I hope to emulate that with my research into antimicrobial surfaces and tear film biomarkers for ocular diseases such as dry eye,” Willcox said.

“I’m very motivated by translation of research into products. The progress from discovery to translation is very exciting. Not everything makes it through, but travelling along that course, whilst challenging, also produces new discoveries.”

Willcox’s laboratory at UNSW focuses on the development of novel antimicrobials that have applications as antibiotics and disinfectants.

According to a report from the SOVS, Willcox and his team develop new antimicrobial coatings that can be used for a variety of purposes, including coating of medical devices to reduce associated infections.

“Several of these initiatives have gone through to pre-clinical testing, and antimicrobial contact lenses through to Phase 3 clinical trials. Within the area of contact lens research, his laboratory focuses on understanding the aetiology of adverse events and comfort during contact lens wear,” the school stated.

Collaborative effort to overcome large-scale problem

Willcox’s research success is set to continue with the support of the NHMRC Ideas Grant, which will evaluate whether new antimicrobials that his team has patented can be bound to the surfaces of medical devices such as catheters and contact lenses and reduce the ability of microbes to adhere to them.

“My NHMRC grant is focussed primarily on producing new medical devices with antimicrobial functionality to tackle the very large issue of hospital acquired infections. However, the research came from studies we have been performing to produce an antimicrobial contact lens coating. We have run a Phase 3 clinical trial with the second iteration of our antimicrobial contact lens with colleagues in India, and showed a 50% reduction in adverse events,” Willcox said.

He continued: “However, we found the coatings only lasted for about seven days – so this NHMRC research is looking at mimics of those contact lens coatings that can be coated onto medical devices including contact lenses and last for much longer – a month for contact lenses, up to a year for other medical devices.”

The team will investigate the mechanism of action of the compounds and then test the ability of the best performing ones to control infections.

Willcox thanked those who helped put the winning grant together. “It involved people from Australia, the US and Singapore. A truly collaborative team to tackle a huge but often neglected worldwide problem.”

His Ideas Grant entitled ‘Tackling Hospital Acquired Infections with Peptide Mimics’ is in collaboration with Professor Naresh Kumar and Dr Renxun Chen (School of Chemistry UNSW), Professor Cyrille Boyer and Dr Edgar Wong (School of Chemical Engineering, UNSW), Professor David McKenzie (School of Physics, University of Sydney), Associate Professor Natalka Suchowerska (Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, University of Sydney) and Associate Professor Karen Vickery (Macquarie University).