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Growth and Development Attracts Excellence Funding

Media Statement

19 November 2002


The University of Auckland today welcomed the announcement of funding for a new Centre of Research Excellence to be hosted at the University's Liggins Institute and Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

The National Research Centre for Growth and Development focuses on biology of mammalian growth and development, a field of fundamental and growing significance to human and animal health and animal productivity.

The Centre clusters over 100 internationally recognised and researchers and students from major research groups led by Professors Peter Gluckman and Jane Harding at The University of Auckland, Professor Tony Reeve at The University of Otago, Professor Christine Winterbourn at The Christchurch Medical School, University of Otago, Professor Hugh Blair, Massey University, and Dr John Bass at AgResearch.

Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Hood, said that the new funding was a welcome boost for The University of Auckland's researchers, and reinforced the high recognition the University received in the first CoRE funding round.

"A key feature of the CoRE process has been the collaboration across institutions, and we are delighted to bring together this group of world-class researchers in the CoRE," he said. "This centre will continue the long tradition of collaboration between scientists around New Zealand, and indeed, around the world."

"The biology of mammalian growth and development is a research area where New Zealand is already a world leader and which has major potential to benefit our society and economy.

Professor Peter Gluckman, the Director of the new Centre, said the CoRE funding provides an opportunity to generate the infrastructure necessary for world-class research in basic and applied bio-medical sciences.

"There is a lot at stake for New Zealand. Around 2,500 babies are born each year with mild, moderate or severe brain injury. A 20% reduction would save emotional burdens and costs to many hundreds of new families each year and more than $500 million in added lifetime cost to health, educational and support services.

"The biology of growth and development is also the basis of our pastoral agriculture. There are big opportunities to improve the lifetime performance of the animals that are so important to our economy.

"We look forward to excellent work in the future from the research groups gathered together to form this centre, for the benefit of all New Zealanders," he said.

The research of the Centre will fall into four main themes:

Causes and consequences of low birth weight

* What should pregnant women eat?

* Diagnosis and treatment of poor fetal growth

* Do mother and fetus compete for nutrients?

* Neurological outcomes

* Diagnosis and treatment of preterm labour

* Long-term consequences of prematurity

Gene-environment interactions in growth and disease

* Does the nutritional environment affect how genes are activated?

* Is there a genetic contribution to fetal growth restriction?

Saving the very immature brain

* Is it possible to protect white matter in the immature brain?

* Can we develop rescue therapies for perinatal brain injury?

* How does the asphyxiated preterm fetus respond?

Treating neurological disease in adults

* Can we identify novel neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory molecules?

* How are white matter cells involved in brain injury and repair?

The University of Auckland is also host to three of the five Centres of Research Excellence that were funded earlier in the year: The Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, the New Zealand Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and Nga Pae o te Maramatanga (Horizons of Insight) The National Institute of Research Excellence for Maori Development and Advancement. The University is also a partner in the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, hosted by Massey University.


Background information:

The National Centre for Growth and Development is comprised of four major academic groupings across New Zealand. They are: The University of Auckland's Liggins Institute, led by Professor Peter Gluckman, and staff from the departments of Anatomy, Chemistry, Maori and Pacific Health, Obstetrics, Psychology and Pharmacology at The University of Auckland, the Genomics (Dunedin), led by Professor Tony Reeve, and Free Radical Groups (Christchurch) led by Professor Christine Winterbourn from the University of Otago, the Veterinary, Animal and Social Sciences group at Massey University, led by Professor Hugh Blair, and the group led by Dr Hugh Bass at AgResearch at Ruakura and Dunedin. Understanding the biology of growth and development is crucial to reducing the disease burden in New Zealand and will have major economic benefits through contributions to our budding pharmaceutical industry and to enhancing productivity in pastoral agriculture. The centre will capitalise on the internationally recognised strengths that New Zealand scientists hold in fields extending from genomics to systems biology, integrating these fields into advanced applications of research into human and animal growth. The Centre will have a major focus on training and preparing a workforce for this sector that is so critical for New Zealand's future. Our research focuses on the biology of early periods of life, from fetal development in the womb and its consequences for the fetus, infant, child and diseases extending in to old age. This is considered one of the most critical areas of modern biology with enormous potential to advance human health and to develop pharmaceutical and biotechnology enterprises within New Zealand. In New Zealand the skill base of our scientists gives us a competitive advantage.

The Centre's research will concentrate on four critical areas: the causes and consequences of low birthweight, gene-environment interactions in growth and disease, saving newborn babies from brain injury, and treating neurodegenerative disease in adults. The merging of disciplines is key to the Centre and creates synergies that will result in new knowledge, deeper understanding and lead to strategies to prevent, diagnose and treat disease or enhance agricultural production.

Over 50 established and emerging biomedical, agricultural and clinical specialists and their students in the biology of mammalian growth and development form the Centre. They are internationally recognised and have strong records of publication and linkage to end-users. This setting provides an excellent environment to concentrate and generate the multiple skills, teamwork and technology transfer that are so essential for New Zealand to ride the 'knowledge-wave'.

Our new knowledge must be applied, and we are already participants in the budding New Zealand-based biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector, having together generated four companies that have brought in millions of dollars worth of equity. This proven record of technology transfer demonstrates how the Centre's outputs will generate income and employment, reduce chronic disease and its associated costs, and boost the agricultural sector. Such success will raise the status of science in New Zealand to make it an economic driver.

Our responsibility is to prepare scientists of the future for this expansion, so great emphasis will be placed on training students, especially Maori. Our multidisciplinary, multi-site approach will benefit the training we can provide, widening experience and fertilising the cross-fostering of ideas. Exchange of students and post-doctoral fellows between sites will be actively encouraged, as will international exchanges. Students will be provided not only with close academic mentorship but an understanding of the importance of the science-society contract which is necessary for this Centre, and science in general, to play its full role in advancing New Zealand's people and economy.

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