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NZ Brain Research Institute’s Kate Russell Q&A

Liam Butler interviews NZ Brain Research Institute’s Kate Russell

24 March 2015

Liam Butler

Question One:

How was the NZ Brain Research Institute founded?

Living with Parkinson's disease didn't hamper local businessman, Cas van der Veer's drive toward success and indeed his determination to live his life well with the condition allowed him to accumulate an estate that has enabled the NZBRI to carry on its important work into Parkinson's. Cas passed away leaving the bulk of his estate to the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation to be used in the hunt for answers to the complex medical questions that Parkinson's disease presents.

Cas's bequest was of sufficient size, that it allowed the CMRF to create the Van der Veer Institute for Parkinson's Research and this became the NZ Brain Research Institute, when the work at the institute had broadened well beyond Parkinson's to include work on other conditions of the brain, which neurologists consider of equal importance.

Question Two

What NZ Brain Research Institute projects are drawing international acclaim?

Today, this thriving Institute is home to several key projects in Parkinson's, Alzheimer's dementia, Huntington's, and multiple sclerosis to name a few.With more than thirty PhD and Post Doc researchers from the Universities of Canterbury and Otago, working at any one time alongside senior research personnel and with clinics also operating, the Institute is always buzzing with activity. Recent successes have seen large HRC grants coming to NZBRI researchers, Professor Tim Anderson and Dr Tracy Melzer both of whom are working on issues around cognitive decline in Parkinson's. The formation of a Centre of Research Excellence in the Brain as a national collaboration between the Universities of Auckland and Otago and the NZBRI will see another surge in development of new projects, particularly in Alzheimer's.

The Institute offers scholarships and Summer Student internships alongside its research projects as the NZBRI, alongside its parent organization, the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, is focused on and committed to, nurturing young talent and retaining the great intellectual capital we have in our region, right here.

As an independent institution, the NZBRI is heavily reliant on local fundraising and donors to assist with its work.

We're able to attract formal research funding for projects but need to raise money for the actual running of the Institute.

We need quite a large building with labs, interview rooms, space for the students to work, lots of desks, computers and all the usual things like power etc to keep the Institute running. This we have to find from generous people and businesses in the community."

One of the true ‘rising stars' of the NZBRI is Dr Tracy Melzer, whose work in MRI imaging is capturing the attention of media and potential collaborators around the globe. I have asked Tracy to share some of the marvelous work being done at the BRI at this time...

"Approximately 10,000 New Zealanders are affected by the debilitating movement limitations from Parkinson's disease (PD). We now know that many, though not all, PD patients eventually also develop dementia, which then becomes the most burdensome aspect of this progressive condition.Though no treatments for dementia are currently available, there is a need to detect individuals at high risk of cognitive decline, which will then allow them to be targeted in forthcoming therapeutic trials. At the New Zealand Brain Research Institute, we have collected an extensive database of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans and cognitive measures in people with and without PD.

What makes this so exciting is that participants have now completed multiple assessments (baseline, 2 years, 4 years, and we are currently collecting 6 year follow-up data). This allows us to follow the progression of the disease. We employ a sophisticated mathematical model that uses the MRI scans to predict the development of dementia. If successful, this would facilitate the identification of patients at imminent risk of developing cognitive impairments-before they develop difficulties-so they can be appropriately targeted in forthcoming therapeutic trials designed to slow or even stop the development of dementia."

Tracy is just one of many bright and talented researchers undertaking brain research projects at the Institute. With the help of the Canterbury community, this independent research institute can continue to thrive and provide important contributions to the body of knowledge internationally on these conditions that affect the lives of so many.


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