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Medical Research Foundation’s Laurenson Awards announced

Otago Medical Research Foundation’s Laurenson Awards announced

Five medical research projects at the University of Otago are being supported through the latest round of the Otago Medical Research Foundation’s Laurenson Awards.

The projects include studying whether heavy opioid drug treatment can cause nerve problems, designing light-activated cancer drugs and trialling the effects of iodine supplements on young adult’s cognition and wellbeing.

Two kidney-related research projects involve developing a therapy for polycystic kidney disease, and studying the effects of mild renal impairment on elderly people’s ability to handle drugs.

The Otago Medical Research Foundation’s mission is to support high quality medical research being carried out in the Otago region. The Laurenson Awards are named after the late Alexia and James Laurenson, major shareholders in Laurenson’s Bakery, whose funds to the Otago Medical Research Foundation have been supporting projects for medical research into nutrition and drugs for more than 15 years.

Around $100,000 was distributed in the latest round.


Dr John Ashton (Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology)
Opioid-Induced Hyperalgesia and Chronic Pain Syndrome
(Working expenses $23,346)

Does opioid drug treatment cause loss of movement? Opioids such as morphine are painkillers that are often used to treat acute pain. However, heavy use of these drugs can make the condition worse, and lead to more severe and long lasting pain. Acute pain can develop into chronic pain syndrome, where patients not only suffer pain but also have impaired movements. Observations in our lab have suggested that opioids may be a cause of this, by adversely affecting nerves that control movement. We will test this idea in this study, and determine whether aggressive use of opioids could increase the risk of chronic pain syndrome.

Dr Gregory Giles (Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology)
Photoactivated Nitric Oxide Donor Drugs as Anti-Cancer Agents
(Working expenses $ 25,665)

Nitric oxide is a naturally occurring molecule that is utilised by the immune system as a means of “chemical warfare” to attack cancerous cells. This proposal aims to design molecules that will mimic the action of this natural defensive mechanism by releasing nitric oxide inside cancer cells in response to externally applied light.

Dr Sheila Skeaff (Department of Human Nutrition) & Associate Professor Ted Ruffman (Department of Psychology)
Effect of iodine supplementation on cognition and wellbeing in young adults: randomised placebo-controlled double-blind study
(Working expenses $6,164)

Iodine deficiency has re-emerged in New Zealand, which is of concern as a lack of iodine can affect brain development. In 2009 we reported on our “landmark” study, which found that 10-13 year old mildly iodine-deficient Dunedin schoolchildren who took iodine supplements for 28 weeks did better on cognitive tests (i.e. problem solving) than children in the placebo group. The brain continues to grow and develop throughout childhood and into early adulthood. The aim of this study is to conduct a randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind intervention trial investigating the effect of iodine supplementation on cognition and well-being in young adults.

Dr Cherie Stayner and Professor Mike Eccles (Department of Pathology)
Developing a therapy for recessive polycystic kidney disease
(Grant-in-aid for working expenses $13,000)

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is a common component of a large spectrum of human diseases, some of which can be caused by mutations in the MKS3 gene. We have a unique sheep model of PKD that carries a mutation in Mks3, causing kidney cysts to develop in utero and lambs to die shortly after birth. We have shown that treating PKD mice in utero with rapamycin reduces their cystic disease. We would now like to treat our PKD sheep with rapamycin, as a first step in developing this flock as the large animal model of choice for testing PKD therapies.

Professor Rob Walker and Dr Tracey Putt (Department of Medical and Surgical Sciences) and Professor Stephen Duffull & Associate Professor Paul Fawcett (School of Pharmacy)
The impact of renal tubular function on drug handling in the elderly
(Working expenses $31,908)

The kidney plays a major role in the handling of most drugs by several mechanisms including filtration and tubular secretion/reabsorption. With renal impairment, modification of drug doses is required. In clinical practice, changes in renal function are estimated according to the creatinine clearance (CrCl) (estimate of glomerular filtration rate [GFR]). The formulae used, include age as a variable that assumes that renal function declines with age alone. It is also assumed that changes in tubular function parallel changes in GFR, but this may not be correct. Given that many drugs are organic acids, tubular secretion/reabsorption are important variables that in the setting of impaired kidney function may significantly alter drug handling. Previous studies have shown that a simple drug cocktail given simultaneously to measure tubular secretion and reabsorption is both safe and representative of tubular function in younger subjects. Using this method, we will compare a normal (normal plasma creatinine, no known medical conditions) older age group (aged >65) with a matched aged group with mild renal impairment (eGFR < 60 ml/min) as well as a younger normal group (20 -40 yrs). A more accurate estimate of the contribution of renal tubular function for drug handling will allow safer drug prescribing especially in the elderly patients.


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