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NZ & Australian Child Health Research Institutes Join Forces

New Zealand and Australia’s leading child health research institutes are joining forces to advance our knowledge of how nutrition interacts with a person’s genetic make-up to shape health and wellbeing.

The new collaboration between the Liggins Institute and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI), dubbed “The GENO Project”, has received $1.5 million from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s Catalyst Project fund, which supports international research partnerships and scientific cooperation.

Professor Frank Bloomfield, director of the University of Auckland-based Liggins Institute, says GENO marks two world-class institutes coming together to become greater than the sum of their parts.

“This is hugely exciting. We can leverage off our complementary strengths to unravel how what we eat interacts with other environmental factors and our genetic make-up to determine our nutritional health and its outcomes, such as obesity,” he says.

Professor Kathryn North, director of MCRI in Melbourne, says: “GENO will generate discoveries that could lead to treatments and prevention of some of the most serious diet-related health issues facing the two countries today.”

The collaboration gives researchers at the Liggins Institute access to a wealth of data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which has followed 10,000 children since 2004. This includes 150,000 blood and other biosamples collected by MCRI’s landmark Child Health CheckPoint project, which also produced an in-depth snapshot of the physical health of nearly 2000 LSAC parent-child pairs when the children were 11-12 years old.

Two National Science Challenges based at the Liggins Institute, “A Better Start” and “High Value Nutrition”, will also benefit from the collaboration.

GENO will also generate PhD and postdoctoral opportunities that will grow New Zealand and Australia’s future researchers, and opens up new potential international investment in research in the two countries.

The MCRI, based at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, will benefit from the Liggins Institute’s international leadership in both nutritional systems biology, which uses computer models to illuminate the interplay of genes, diet, and lifestyle, and methods to reveal the “genetic architecture” of health and disease.

GENO’s New Zealand lead, Auckland-trained paediatrician Professor Melissa Wake, recently returned to Auckland after 25 years at the Melbourne Children’s Campus.

“New Zealand and Australia may be arch rivals in the sports field,” she says, “but in bettering health we make natural teammates. Our two populations are broadly similar in terms of health profile, and we are both struggling with the toll taken by obesity and other non-communicable diseases. Both institutes see this project as the beginning of an enduring partnership.”

Professor Wake is the CureKids Professor of Child Health Research at the University of Auckland’s Department of Paediatrics and the Liggins Institute. She says cross-national regional collaborations such as this are the way of the future, mirroring developments in Europe, the UK and the US.

“We talk about ‘harmonising’ research – aligning the way we collect and analyse data so we can seamlessly collaborate and make our research much more effective.”

GENO stands for the New Zealand-Australia LifeCourse Collaboration on Genes, Environment, Nutrition and Obesity. Specific research projects include:

• Developing methods to predict how each individual’s DNA sequence contributes to their health and wellbeing and better predict obesity risk and the outcome of targeted interventions

• An investigation of the critical role of micronutrients (vitamins, essential fatty and amino acids, and minerals) in metabolic health

The Catalyst Fund grant comes on the back of the New Zealand-Australia Science, Research and Innovation Cooperation Agreement, signed in February.


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