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Penney Ageing Research Unit

Penney Ageing Research Unit

Laboratory of Ageing and Pharmacology

The Laboratory of Ageing and Pharmacology is part of the Penney Ageing Research Unit, which aims to improve healthy ageing in older people in the community and in hospital. Overall, our focus is on prevention and better management of the geriatric syndromes, including frailty, falls and confusion. 

Our laboratory’s research aims to improve the safety and efficacy of medicines for older adults. We use laboratory, clinical and population based studies to understand the risks and benefits of medicines in older people, particularly in those with multiple chronic medical conditions, multiple concurrent medications (polypharmacy) and geriatric syndromes such as frailty, falls and cognitive impairment. Our research aims to inform drug choices, doses and formulations of medicines for older people. This will help older people to benefit from medicines and will minimise adverse effects.

Our program of work on understanding and managing the effects of multiple medicines in older adults spans clinical, population and basic science studies. We developed a pharmacological risk assessment tool, the Drug Burden Index, to assess the impact of all of an older person’s medicines on their physical function. We have demonstrated that higher Drug Burden Index is associated with loss of functional independence, more falls, frailty, longer hospitalisations and greater mortality. We are now developing software, the Drug Burden Index Calculator©, which we are using to trial the Drug Burden Index in clinical practice. We are conducting several trials of deprescribing (withdrawing medicines that are likely to cause more harm than benefit) in hospitals, the community and residential aged care facilities. We have taken a novel bedside to bench approach to better understand whether and how multiple medicines impair physical and cognitive function in old age.

A major theme of our research is investigating the use and effects of medicines in frail (less resilient) older people and more recently, with the support of the NHMRC Cognitive Decline Partnership Centre, in older people with dementia. We have shown that frailty affects prescribing and use of medicines, how medicines are distributed in and cleared by the body, how medicines affect the body and their overall effectiveness and safety. Furthermore, we found that the use of multiple concurrent medicines and of particular types of medicines increases the risk of developing frailty in the future. We are currently investigating these associations in laboratory models to better understand causality and mechanism. 

In addition to studying the effects of medicines on an older person’s overall function, we also study drug induced liver disease in old age. This is one of the commonest side effects of medicines, frequently leads to medicines being withdrawn from the market, and the risk seems to increase for some but not all medicines in old age. We conduct clinical and laboratory research to understand the changing risk and mechanisms of those changes of drug induced liver disease with common drugs like the simple analgesic paracetamol and the anti-tuberculous agent, isoniazid. This research has already influenced policy and future findings should inform safe drug use for older people.

Our research group prioritises education, mentorship, capacity building and collaboration. Our research students have had backgrounds in science (pharmacology), medicine, pharmacy and nursing. Two of Professor Hilmer’s PhD graduates and one of the post-docs she mentored have been awarded NHMRC fellowships. Many others have gone on to conduct national and international post-doctoral research or to study medicine or pharmacy. Several of our early career researchers visit the laboratories of our collaborators nationally and internationally at leading research institutes such as the National Institute on Aging, NIH, USA and the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. 

Head of Laboratory - Professor Sarah Hilmer 

Laboratory Members

Research Affiliates

  • Doctor Danijela Gnjidic 
  • Doctor Sarah Mitchell 
  • Doctor Alice Kane 

Post-doctoral Researchers

  • Doctor John Mach 
  • Doctor Lisa Kouladjian 
  • Doctor Emily Reeve 

Research Assistants

  • Mr Doug Drak 
  • Ms Caitlin Logan 
  • Ms Rayan Nahas 

PhD Students

  • Doctor Tu Nguyen MBBS 
  • Ms Esa Chen BPharm 

Masters Student

  • Mr Alexander Clough 

Honours Students

  • Ms Simone Cheung 
  • Mr Luke Kardell 

Major Funding Sources

  • Geoff and Elaine Penney Ageing Research Trust Fund, RNSH
  • National Health and Medical Research Council Project Grants
  • National Health and Medical Research Council Cognitive Decline Partnership Centre
  • Alzheimer’s Australia
  • NSW Health Agency for Clinical Innovation
  • Ramsay Research and Teaching Fund 


Healthy Ageing


Rehabilitation & Aged Care


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