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Major funding for innovative Otago health research


Monday 9 June 2014

Major funding for innovative Otago health research

More than $31.3M in new health research funding has been awarded to Otago researchers to support a range of world-class studies aimed at improving New Zealanders’ health and well-being.

The latest Health Research Council of New Zealand annual funding round results were announced today. Otago researchers gained 24 contracts, including three major multi-million, five-year programmes, 14 projects and seven grants for emerging researchers. Otago’s successful applicants span the University’s campuses in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington and together gained the largest share of funding of any institution in this latest round.

One of the major programmes, led by Anatomy Professor David Grattan, will examine how the hormonal changes responsible for helping women’s brains adapt to pregnancy operate – and the serious complications that can occur for both mother and baby when these changes go awry.

Resulting conditions can include maternal obesity, gestational diabetes, pre-term labour and postnatal depression. Such adverse events can also have serious consequences on the baby, changing brain development and increasing life-long risk of many diseases, including obesity and mental illness.

Another programme, headed by Biochemistry Associate Professor Tony Merriman, aims to improve the understanding of the causes, treatment and prevention of gout by studying the complex interplay of genetic and environmental risk factors, such as alcohol and sugary drinks, in the development of this painful and debilitating disease. The researchers will also examine whether genetic makeup influences response to the standard gout drug, allopurinol.

The third programme extends the world-leading heart hormone discoveries by researchers at the University’s Christchurch Heart Institute. This research team, led by Professor Mark Richards, will evaluate markers for unmet needs in diagnosing and managing heart failure.

The team’s objectives include early detection of dangerous complications of heart failure—kidney injury and pneumonia—and fine-tuning of the use of markers to guide diagnosis and management of the overall condition.

The three programmes are funded at around $5M each over five years.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says he is delighted by the success of all the Otago recipients in this highly contested annual funding round.

“The breadth and depth of skills that are needed to contribute to high-quality health-related research is highlighted in these results. The lead researchers represent more than ten disciplines across three of Otago’s academic divisions, including—but not limited to—anatomy, biochemistry, general practice, human nutrition, marketing, medicine, pathology, pharmacy, psychology, public health, and women’s and children’s health. Many of the collaborative teams also have strong researchers trained in humanities and social science disciplines,” Professor Blaikie says.

It is also very pleasing to see that half of the 14 Emerging Researcher First Grants went to applicants from Otago, he adds.

“This shows that not only are the University’s well-established staff continuing to put forward excellent research proposals, their colleagues at an early-career stage are also becoming the research leaders of tomorrow,” he says.

One of the seven Emerging Researcher Grants goes towards a study examining whether eating bread made with either less salt or with increased levels of L-arginine from hazel nuts or nitrate from beetroot may be a simple and effective way to reduce high blood pressure.

Another grant involves developing a novel way to selectively target cancer cells for chemotherapy so that tumour-killing drugs are only released when such cells are identified, sparing healthy cells. Also among these grants is one that will focus on discovering why Maori suffer worse disability outcomes after injury.

The 14 Otago Project Grants range from basic biomedical investigations into the genetic regulation of brain stem cell development to devising interventions to improve health outcomes for patients suffering multiple diseases.

They focus on topics that include assessing an existing antidepressant as a pain treatment for knee osteoarthritis, and working towards a new therapy to raise levels of HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) to reduce cardiovascular disease risk.

Other projects involve investigating the potential role of a tumour-suppressor gene variant in autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, and teasing out how the sex hormone AMH regulates female reproduction. Another will explore a new biological marker’s potential for diagnosing specific causes of anxiety disorders.

One Christchurch campus project aims to improve the diagnosis and treatment of Legionnaires’ disease in New Zealand, while another will use gene testing and brain imaging to attempt to find a way to predict the onset of cognitive decline in patients with Parkinson’s.

Among the public health-related projects are an evaluation of the effectiveness of New Zealand’s alcohol reform legislation and a comprehensive analysis by Wellington campus researchers of survey data to improve understanding of the impact of racial discrimination on adult health and wellbeing.


Otago’s HRC annual round funding recipients:
(Please note: Only the first named investigator is listed)

Programmes:

Professor David Grattan (Anatomy)
Healthy pregnancy, healthy babies
60 months, $4,987,293

Associate Professor Tony Merriman (Biochemistry)
Urate and gout: genetic control, environmental and drug interactions
60 months, $4,999,512

Professor Mark Richards (Medicine, Christchurch)
Heart Failure: markers and management
60 months, $4,980,858

Projects:

Professor Tim Anderson (Medicine, Christchurch)
Genetics, brain imaging, and cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease
36 months, $1,178,803

Professor Antony Braithwaite (Pathology, Dunedin)
A role for p53 isoforms in inflammatory disease
36 months, $1,176,905

Professor Susan Dovey (General Practice & Rural Health)
Patient harms in New Zealand general practices: Records review study
36 months, $1,174,690

Dr Ricci Harris (Public Health, Wellington)
Understanding the impact of racial discrimination on adult health and wellbeing
36 months, $452,777

Dr Ben Hudson (General Practice, Christchurch)
A randomised controlled trial of Nortriptyline in knee osteoarthritis
36 months, $1,190,921

Associate Professor Greg Jones (Surgical Sciences)
An epigenome-wide study for abdominal aortic aneurysm
36 months, $1,138,354

Associate Professor Bev Lawton (Primary Health Care & General Practice, Wellington)
Addressing avoidable harm suffered by Māori babies
36 months, $1,199,999

Dr Brett Maclennan (Preventive & Social Medicine)
Evaluation of New Zealand's alcohol reform legislation
48 months, $1,190,521

Associate Professor Sally McCormick (Biochemistry)
Restoring HDL levels
36 months, $1,044,053

Professor Ian McLennan (Anatomy)
AMH regulation of female reproduction
48 months, $1,169,770

Professor Neil McNaughton (Psychology)
Clinical translation of an anxiety process biomarker
36 months, $1,040,728

Professor David Murdoch (Pathology, Christchurch)
Legionnaires’ disease in New Zealand: improving diagnostics and treatment
30 months, $999,467

Professor Stephen Robertson (Women’s & Child Health)
Defining genetic regulators of neurogenesis in humans
36 months, $1,185,630

Associate Professor Diana Sarfati (Public Health, Wellington)
Multimorbidity: the most common chronic condition of all
36 months, $1,199,968

Emerging Researcher First Grants

Dr Katherine Black (Human Nutrition)
Which diet? Dietary interventions and blood pressure
24 months, $149,994

Dr Allan Gamble (Pharmacy)
Bioorthogonal Prodrug Activation for Targeted Chemotherapy
36 months, $144,275

Dr Christopher Jackson (Medicine, Dunedin)
Primary rectal cancer management in advanced disease with chemotherapy
36 months, $145,529

Dr Sandra Mandic (Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences)
Built Environment and Active Transport to School: BEATS Parental Survey
36 months, $149,941

Dr Ninya Maubach (Marketing)
Heuristics in the supermarket: Do food labels support healthy choices?
36 months, $109,940

Dr Tracy Melzer (Medicine, Christchurch)
Imaging markers of imminent cognitive decline in Parkinson’s disease
36 months, $149,943

Dr Emma Wyeth (Preventive & Social Medicine)
Maori Disability Outcomes: Pathways and experiences after injury
36 months, $149,410

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