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New Fund Benefits Auckland Medical Researchers

For Immediate Use
7 February 2005

New Government Fund Benefits Auckland Medical Researchers

Two University of Auckland medical researchers have been awarded funding totalling nearly $1.5 million to conduct collaborative obesity and diabetes research with overseas colleagues.

Dr Kathleen Mountjoy and Professor Peter Shepherd from the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences are among the first recipients of the International Investment Opportunities Fund (IIOF) which seeks to raise the profile of New Zealand's research capability, forge international collaborations, and attract top research talent to work here.

Dr Mountjoy and her team will receive $573,670 over two years to collaborate with the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research on the causes of obesity and type II diabetes.

"Over the past decade, a lot has been learnt about the role of leptin in regulating body weight and metabolism. My work delves further into this area," says Dr Mountjoy.

"It is known that some obese people have high levels of leptin in their body, but are resistant to it. My team and I are studying the mechanism of action for two melanocortin peptides known to be regulated by leptin and mediating many of leptin's affects in the brain. This is a major area of international drug development research.

"A few years ago, we established a relationship with Associate Professor Karen Eidne at the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, who has expertise in the area of peptide hormone signalling and state-of-the art equipment required for this type of research. The IIOF grant will help us continue this collaboration, and advance an important aspect of our research."

Professor Peter Shepherd, named London's Young Biotech Entrepreneur in 2002, is an international biotech expert and a recently returned New Zealander who spent the last fifteen years at prestigious institutions in the USA and England, including Harvard, Cambridge and University College London.

His distinguished research career has focused on understanding how insulin regulates the highly complex pathways that control the function of cells, and how defects in these pathways lead to the development of insulin resistance and type II diabetes.

"My IIOF proposal involves the development of a new technology platform in New Zealand that will provide researchers with more advanced 'tools' to research the highly complex signalling pathways that regulate the function of the cell," says Professor Shepherd who was awarded $886,000 over two years.

"The 'Signalomics' platform will be of enormous value in basic research, drug development, and development of new strategies to diagnose disease.

"Successful completion of this project requires critical mass. The IIOF grant will assist in developing a trans-Tasman consortium of academic cell signalling researchers, and Symansis Ltd - a UK-New Zealand biotechnology company that will move its operations to New Zealand."

Dean of Medical and Health Sciences Professor Peter Smith says the grants underscore the calibre of faculty researchers who are doing internationally significant work.

"I understand this new government research fund was substantially over-subscribed, with grant applications well in excess of the money available. The recognition given to Dr Mountjoy and Professor Shepherd is a tribute to the quality of their work, the research reputations they have forged, and the international standing they have in their respective fields."

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Tom Barnes says The University of Auckland's success in the IIOF fund will assist in achieving a greater level of collaboration with other research teams.

"In a small country like New Zealand collaboration in research endeavors is essential in order to leverage the small resource base for research. The University of Auckland is therefore actively committed to developing collaborative relationships with other research institutions both nationally and internationally.

"The successful collaborations we have with other universities in New Zealand, CRIs, and research institutions abroad such as the Universitas 21 international university network, place us in a unique position to capitalise on international research collaborations for the benefit of New Zealand.

"This success in the IIOF will provide key resources to enable our researchers to extend and deepen their international collaboration efforts and we are most grateful to the Government for its foresight in establishing the scheme."

The International Investment Opportunities Fund is jointly administered by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) and the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC). It was established last year, and its aims are to:

* Support participation in international research programmes with a high relevance to New Zealand's economic, social and/or environmental development;

* Increase the ability of New Zealand researchers to participate in research collaborations that attract international co-funding; and

* Recruit highly experienced researchers from overseas.

In this first funding round - targeted specifically at building international research collaborations - University of Auckland researchers gained two of six awards made.


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