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Winterbourn Earns Otago’s Highest Research Honour

Christine Winterbourn Earns Otago’s Highest Research Honour

Renowned for her pioneering work on free-radicals and links to disease

Professor Christine Winterbourn, head of the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Free-Radical Research Group, is this year’s recipient of the University of Otago’s Distinguished Research Medal.

Vice-Chancellor Dr Graeme Fogelberg made the announcement at today’s Senate meeting.

“It’s vital for a University to foster a culture of research excellence, and this culture is made possible by the leadership of people such as Professor Winterbourn,” Dr Fogelberg says. “She has been absolutely dedicated to the pursuit of research excellence, and by her own example she has inspired those who work with her to achieve the highest possible standards in research.

“And in her own right, Professor Winterbourn has made a significant scientific contribution to the fundamental understanding of the role of free radicals and antioxidants in the development of disease and the maintenance of health.

“I wish to congratulate Professor Winterbourn on her outstanding achievement.”

Upon learning of her honour, a delighted Professor Winterbourn said that it was “very gratifying to see the University recognising research and particularly for the Free Radical Research Group in Christchurch; after all, research is always a team effort.

“It’s also recognition for this great group of people who’ve been working with me for a long period.”

When Professor Winterbourn first started in the field 30 years ago, free-radical research was not widely recognised in relation to medicine and health issues. However, some of the work she was involved in at the time helped raise the awareness of the role played by free-radicals in health problems.

As a post-doc student working with Professor Robin Carroll – now at Cambridge University – Professor Winterbourn investigated how anaemia developed as a result of unstable haemoglobin destroying red blood cells.

“My work, along with others, showed that this abnormal haemoglobin was producing excessive amounts of superoxide radicals, which was a new finding at the time. And this opened up the idea that these radicals were being generated in the cell all the time, and what they do, and scientists became very interested in the action of free radicals inside cells and how they originate.”

Free radicals can cause major damage to cells within the human body, and have been linked to the development of diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke and arthritis.

Professor Winterbourn is currently exploring a number of research topics, including the development and application of “biomarkers” which can trace the oxidative stress caused by free radicals, and the role of such stress and inflammation in chronic lung disease and brain injury in premature infants.

“I’ve always felt privileged to work in something I enjoy doing, and to be able to follow up areas that interest me,” she says. “The best thing is to concentrate on your research, and keep the frustrating aspects under control!”

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