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Otago researchers gain major science funding

Thursday 11 September 2014

Otago researchers gain major science funding for innovative projects

Six innovative University of Otago-led research proposals will receive $10.15 M in new science investment funding announced by the Government today.

The new programmes are being supported through the ‘health and society’, ‘high-value manufacturing and services’, and ‘biological industries’ funds administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment. They are part of a total pool of 48 funded programmes, which each run for between two and six years, awarded to 13 different research organisations with total investment of $139 million.

Otago’s programmes involve developing:

• A mathematical model for New Zealand policy-makers that assesses the benefits, cost, and cost-effectiveness of a range of health interventions across cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer;

• Improved titanium implants that amplify bone growth to reduce complications and implant failure;

• Protein from lower grade wool as a premium food ingredient;

• Medical technology that allows neurochemicals to be non-invasively delivered to the brain to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s;

• Highly accurate portable gravity-measuring devices using atomic optics for geo-science and other field applications;

• Compounds for infant formula that stimulate the growth of healthy bowel bacteria in a similar way that breast milk does.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says he is delighted by the Otago researchers’ success in the Ministry’s latest science investment round.

“Their high-quality proposals exemplify the innovative, world-leading research undertaken at Otago. These programmes have the potential to reap important benefits for New Zealanders’ health and wellbeing while also boosting the country’s economic fortunes.”

The researchers involved are from across the University’s three main campuses in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington.

Through the submission process, a total 208 science research proposals were received. The final investment decisions were made by New Zealand’s Science Board, following a robust peer review and assessment process by independent experts.

Otago’s 2014 Science Investment Fund projects

(Only Principal Investigators are listed and amounts are GST exclusive)

Modelling to prioritise intervention studies in the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge

Professor Tony Blakely (Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington)

Funding: Health and Society (Targeted Research)

$2,948,052 over six years

Health interventions that set healthy habits can reduce health 'losses' (avoidable death and suffering) from common diseases. For example, if all New Zealanders had an ideal diet and normal weight, total health loss in 2006 would have been 11% lower. The question is: which interventions are effective and cost-effective in improving health? This is information that policy-makers in New Zealand need to have, in order to make rational decisions about which health interventions to promote.

We use economic (mathematical) modelling to assess the health benefits, cost, and cost-effectiveness of up to 15 health interventions across cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. These interventions cover ways of improving diets, improving physical activity, stopping smoking, and improving access to good health services, among others. We also examine how these health benefits, cost, and cost-effectiveness vary depending on age, sex, ethnicity and socioeconomic status-to see if some people benefit less or more than others, and why this might be so. In order to provide the best possible information to policy-makers, we also use the models to decide what is the 'next best research' to do, then do this research, and use the new knowledge gained to further improve our estimates.

Using modelling to prioritise health interventions is becoming more common. We use rich New Zealand data (e.g. health system costs), and sophisticated and novel methods to build our models and prioritise what research to do next. A novel feature of our research is the use of models to prioritize ‘next best research’, and iterate between modelling and primary research.

Providing policy-makers with comprehensive information on the health benefits, cost, and cost-effectiveness of a range of interventions enables cost-effective health interventions to be promoted. This can lead to improved health for New Zealanders, reduced health inequalities, cost savings, and extra benefits in other areas (e.g. the economy).

Amplifying bone growth in titanium implants

Dr Tim Woodfield (Orthopaedic Surgery and Musculoskeletal Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch)

Funding: High-Value Manufacturing and Services (Targeted Research) Fund

$3,219,208 over four years

Global growth in the elderly population presents a tremendous challenge to healthcare systems – in New Zealand alone, it is estimated 31% of the population will be over 60 by 2051. With more people living longer and more active lives, combined with an epidemic of aging-related degenerative joint disease, the incidence and cost of treating conditions such as degenerative disc disease in the spine and osteoarthritis in the hip and knee will continue to escalate alarmingly, as will the demand for joint replacement and revision surgery.

There is global demand for improved implants that replace or fuse bone in diseased spine and joints to reduce pain and improve quality of life. This demand is vast and rapidly increasing, e.g. joint replacement surgery will skyrocket by almost 7-fold in the US alone by 2030, with similar trends evident in New Zealand. The spinal market (US$12.8b) is the largest and fastest growing segment of the ~$36bn global orthopaedic market.

Our group aims to use advanced additive manufacturing of titanium (layer-by-layer fusing of titanium powder) to revolutionise the design and production of porous implants – those specifically designed to integrate with bone and support joint loading. Promotion of bone-growth between the implant and human bone (osseointegration) is vital to create a strong bond, and enable the natural transfer of load between the implant and the surrounding bone. This maintains the bone in a healthy condition, eliminating many of the complications and failures of the implant and the surrounding bone.

Adoption of the revolutionary osseointegration technology developed in this programme will deliver the first New Zealand-manufactured spinal fusion product into the market. A multidisciplinary team from the Universities of Otago & Auckland have been assembled and ready to tackle this problem.

Premium Protein

Associate Professor George Dias (Anatomy)

Funding: Smart Ideas Phase 1 (Biological Industries)

$999,796 over two years

Sheep wool is 95% protein with no fat or carbohydrates. Being high in protein makes wool an extremely rich protein source; however, up until now it has been difficult to efficiently access this protein. We have recently developed a novel method for efficient extraction of food-safe digestible protein from natural wool. The end product is called wool derived protein (WDP).

WDP offers an exciting opportunity to add value to New Zealand’s low-valued medium to coarse wool clip. WDP can be produced at <$10/kg making it extremely cost competitive relative to the gold standard whey protein isolate at $25/kg.

Our Smart Idea seeks to take WDP’s potential to another level by undertaking proof-of-concept science that will attest to WDP’s ability to be used and marketed as a premium-earning functional ingredient (>$50/kg).This proposal is based on intriguing data from WDP preliminary studies including that WDP is uniquely rich in the amino acid cysteine and has high levels of selenium — both key components in glutathione, a critical agent in cellular antioxidant processes. WDP may therefore aid the attenuation of oxidative stress in diseased (e.g. type 2 diabetes) and stressed (intensively exercised) muscle.

Through a series of coordinated in-vitro analyses, in-vivo studies and a pilot human trial we will develop a fundamental understanding of the bio-functionality of WDP and determine its potential antioxidant effects and metabolic interactions.

Our focus on premium, rather than commodity, proteins will add enormous value to New Zealand’s wool resource. New Zealand’s food processing and nutritional ingredient companies will have ready access to this new, premium protein to develop innovative, high-value exports. This Smart Idea is particularly timely as recent moves by food safety authorities both globally and in New Zealand require scientific justification of any health and nutritional claims.

Smart non-invasive drug delivery to the brain

Associate Professor John Reynolds (Anatomy)

Funding: Smart Ideas Phase 1 (HVMS)

$998,026 over two years

The proposed research will stimulate a high-profit, technology-based medical device and consumables industry in New Zealand for the treatment of brain disorders. The technology will incorporate a delivery system for brain chemicals together with a controller that will manage timing and dose. Drug delivery will mimic natural release of neurochemicals in the brain, reducing side effects and improving treatment efficacy long term. The new technology will enable smart, non-invasive drug delivery that will revolutionise the treatment of disorders with underlying neurochemical imbalances, such as Parkinson’s disease and drug-resistant epilepsy.

Next Generation Gravimeters Using Atomic Interferometry

Dr Mikkel Andersen (Physics)

Funding: Smart Ideas Phase 1 (HVMS)

$989,388 over two years

The gravitational field on earth’s surface varies locally depending on the mass density of materials in the ground. Measurements of the local gravitational field provide information on underground structures and play a crucial role in a wide range of geo-science and mineral exploration applications. The accuracy of commercially available absolute gravimeters reaches the 10 Gal range. Light pulse atom interferometers, a new type of absolute gravimeter, provide state of the art laboratory measurements of the local gravitational field at a record accuracy better than 1 Gal. Such instruments based on the quantum nature of atoms, are not yet commercially available.

Our goal is to develop a portable absolute gravimeter suited for geo-science and other field applications with an accuracy exceeding current commercially available gravimeters. We will use low cost diode laser technology and state of the art laser cooling and atomic manipulation processes to build a novel type of light pulse atom interferometer designed for simple and low cost implementation.

The research team will be led by a scientist with experience in atom optics and precision measurements with input and guidance from leading national and international peers and technology end users.

The project will combine New Zealand’s research strengths in fundamental atomic physics and geophysics to develop a high value instrument for export markets. It will take advantage of existing research facilities and expertise developed through previous fundamental research investment. The research will lead to niche high value manufacturing in New Zealand providing export income, high paid jobs and young New Zealand researchers with unsurpassed technical skills. Furthermore development of this technology will give our geophysicists a leading edge with access to the newest technology that can be used in mineral exploration and prediction of natural disasters.

Functional formula - Phase 2

Professor Gerald Tannock (Microbiology & Immunology)

Funding: Smart Ideas Phase 2 (Biological Industries)

$1,000,000 over two years

This research project aims to develop NZ-derived products that could be used in infant formula to simulate the action of Human Milk Oligosaccharides in boosting the abundance of bacterial species (bifidobacteria) that predominate in the bowel of breast milk-fed babies. The novel products identified in previous research (Phase 1) were derived from materials plentiful in New Zealand. Initial research shows these promote interactions between different kinds of bifidobacteria with the overall effect of boosting their abundance by natural means, mimicking that of Human Milk Oligosaccharides. In this project we will undertake the scale-up manufacture and synthesis of these compounds and determine if the ecological effects of the novel substances seen in laboratory experiments are validated in animal experiments. Acceptability and safety of the substances for human consumption will also be tested.

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