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Funding boost helps NZ researchers

Funding boost helps New Zealand researchers protect our minds and memories

Keeping our brains sharp and memories alive is the focus of at least two research projects that have just received a significant funding boost from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).

As part of its annual funding round, the government body has just awarded $55.56 million to 49 projects with the potential to vastly improve the health of New Zealanders.

Among the projects is a one-of-a-kind study to identify the earliest signs of dementia, long before clinical diagnosis.

“Imagine you have been diagnosed with dementia. You’re told that it will progressively and irreversibly deprive you of your ability to think, your personality, and your independence,” says lead investigator Associate Professor Maurice Curtis from the University of Auckland.

“Now imagine your doctor tells you that you could have been treated if you were diagnosed 10 years earlier, but the damage to your brain now is too extensive. This is the problem we are trying to solve.”

Remarkably, the driving force behind this study is a large New Zealand family whose members carry a genetic mutation that is known to cause frontotemporal dementia. With 25 members of the family recruited into the study, it’s the world’s largest multi-generational study into this type of dementia.

By assessing blood tests taken annually and measuring ongoing changes in thinking and sense of smell, this longitudinal study aims to compare changes that occur between members of the family who carry the gene and those who don’t.

“This will allow us to measure potential markers of dementia up to 30 years before expected clinical onset, which could then make early intervention possible,” says Professor Curtis.

“We are focusing on non-invasive, cost-effective diagnostic markers, in the hope that they could one day be used widely as a screening tool for pre-clinical dementia.”

In another project aimed at preserving our memories, Professor Wickliffe Abraham from the University of Otago aims to reveal the fundamental mechanisms that disrupt brain ‘plasticity’ and affect our ability to learn and remember things.

“The ability to form memories is fundamental to all mental abilities, and there are profound consequences when memory function is impaired, including Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke and traumatic brain injury,” he says.

His team will be looking into the role of ‘astrocytes’ – cells that support and help the function of nerve cells in the brain.

“In the past 10 to 15 years, astrocytes and how they work together with the nerve cells has become a real hot topic,” says Professor Abraham. “Under normal conditions, they may be involved in protecting memories from interference, but in the presence of disease they may actually generate memory deficits.”

His study is poised to make a significant contribution to the growing international field of astrocyte biology and our understanding of how memory mechanisms are regulated.

“Understanding these processes may help identify new targets for therapeutic interventions to rescue diseased memory and cognition,” he says.

The HRC’s director of Research Investments and Contracts, Dr Vernon Choy, says this year’s project proposals once again prove that New Zealand researchers are leading the way in identifying novel solutions to difficult problems.

“The projects we’ve funded this year span across public health, biomedical research, Māori and Pacific health. All of them delve into important health issues, and many pose questions that affect us all in some way – they really do have the potential to improve the lives of all New Zealanders.”

See below for the full list of Project grant recipients, and to read lay summaries of the research projects (from Monday 18 June) visit and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Projects’ and ‘2018’.

2018 Project grants – full list

Professor Haxby Abbott, University of Otago, Dunedin
The primary care management and impact of osteoarthritis: learning from big data
36 months, $1,199,993

Professor Wickliffe Abraham, University of Otago, Dunedin
Mechanisms of neural network metaplasticity via astrocytes
36 months, $1,175,591

Professor David Ackerley, Victoria University of Wellington
Repurposing the anthelmentic niclosamide to combat Gram negative superbugs
36 months, $1,189,475

Professor Michael Baker, University of Otago, Wellington
Developing an optimal strategy for the rheumatic fever endgame
36 months, $1,196,974

Dr Jackie Benschop, Massey University, Palmerston North
Emerging sources and pathways for Leptospirosis - a paradigm shift
36 months, $1,199,841

Professor Margaret Brimble, The University of Auckland
Naturally occurring peptaibols: “Magic bullets” for targeting breast cancer
36 months, $1,195,373

Dr Rebecca Brookland, University of Otago, Dunedin
Predictors and impact of driving cessation on older adults and whanau/families
48 months, $1,199,989

Professor Larry Chamley, The University of Auckland
Placental extracellular vesicles, controllers of the maternal vasculature
36 months, $1,187,064

Dr Linda Cobiac, University of Otago, Wellington
Choosing interventions to reduce alcohol-related harm
36 months, $1,037,229

Professor Julian Crane, University of Otago, Wellington
Are toxic moulds a real health hazard in New Zealand?
36 months, $1,193,603

Dr David Crossman, The University of Auckland
Nanoscale fibrosis and loss of contractility in the failing human heart
36 months, $1,182,220

Associate Professor Maurice Curtis, The University of Auckland
Identifying the first signs of dementia in humans
36 months, $891,792

Professor Stuart Dalziel, Auckland DHB
How safe are our emergency departments? A national prospective cohort study
36 months, $1,197,164

Dr Joanne Davidson, The University of Auckland
Look before we leap: strategies for treating mild neonatal encephalopathy
36 months, $1,185,478

Professor Michael Eccles, University of Otago, Dunedin
Epigenomic profiling to predict patient response to melanoma immunotherapy
36 months, $1,198,714

Dr Theresa Fleming, Victoria University of Wellington
Integrating survey and intervention research for youth health gains
36 months, $1,189,388

Associate Professor Mhoyra Fraser, The University of Auckland
New horizons for preterm brain protection: exploiting endogenous neuroprotection
36 months, $1,187,296

Professor Leigh Hale, University of Otago, Dunedin
Co-creating a digital self-help intervention for people with persistent pain
36 months, $1,198,177

Professor Jane Harding, The University of Auckland
Nutrition and brain development in moderate and late preterm babies
36 months, $1,187,239

Ms Gayl Humphrey, The University of Auckland
Smart phone delivered CBT for gambling related harm: An RCT
36 months, $1,190,695

Associate Professor Michael Jameson, The University of Auckland
More gain, less pain from chemoradiation for rectal cancer by adding simvastatin
60 months, $1,399,054

Dr Kelly Jones, AUT University
Reducing fatigue after stroke: A randomised controlled trial
36 months, $1,188,578

Dr Peter Jones, University of Otago, Dunedin
A novel target for the control of arrhythmias
36 months, $1,133,212

Associate Professor Nicola Kayes, AUT University
Evaluating a sustainable model of peer mentoring in traumatic brain injury
36 months, $1,192,532

Professor Ngaire Kerse, The University of Auckland
Staying UpRight in residential care
36 months, $1,443,303

Dr Bronwyn Kivell, Victoria University of Wellington
Development of novel remyelination treatments for multiple sclerosis
36 months, $1,167,846

Associate Professor Bridget Kool, The University of Auckland
Evaluating the impact of prehospital care on mortality following major trauma
30 months, $1,096,497

Dr Peter Mace, University of Otago, Dunedin
Understanding regulation of the polycomb-repressive deubiquitinase in malignancy
36 months, $1,193,468

Professor Ralph Maddison, The University of Auckland
Rugby fans in training: A randomised controlled trial
36 months, $1,199,266

Professor Sally McCormick, University of Otago, Dunedin
Targeting new receptors for lipoprotein(a)
48 months, $1,185,496

Professor Mark McKeage, The University of Auckland
Reducing oxaliplatin toxicity: A randomised dose-finding proof-of-concept trial
36 months, $1,195,454

Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, The University of Auckland
Pharmacological brain-imaging of novel rapid antidepressant medicines
36 months, $1,187,508

Professor Pauline Norris, University of Otago, Dunedin
Randomised controlled trial of prescription charges
36 months, $1,035,525

Associate Professor Adam Patterson, The University of Auckland
Banishing tumour hypoxia to render cancer immunotherapy curative
36 months, $1,197,122

Dr Rohit Ramchandra, The University of Auckland
Targeting chemoreceptors in hypertension: a large animal pre-clinical trial
36 months, $1,187,099

Professor Franca Ronchese, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research
Molecular characterisation of dendritic cells during immune responses
36 months, $1,199,996

Professor Robert Scragg, The University of Auckland
Improving CVD risk prediction in primary care: novel arterial waveform method
48 months, $1,199,504

Professor Peter Shepherd, The University of Auckland
A new combination therapy for cancer
36 months, $1,166,624

Professor Lisa Stamp, University of Otago, Christchurch
Is prophylaxis required with start-low go slow dosing of allopurinol in gout?
48 months, $1,432,108

Professor Timothy Stokes, University of Otago, Dunedin
Do regional DHB groupings improve service integration and health outcomes?
24 months, $799,562

Professor Richard Troughton, University of Otago, Christchurch
Dietary sodium reduction to improve heart failure outcomes: The SODIUM-HF study
36 months, $1,412,362

Rangahau Hauora Māori Projects

Dr Donna Cormack, The University of Auckland
Te whakahaumaru taiao: safe environments for Māori medical practitioners
36 months, $994,669

Dr Cameron Lacey, University of Otago, Christchurch
Pathways to first episode psychosis and outcomes In Māori
24 months, $618,336

Dr Sarah-Jane Paine, The University of Auckland
Revealing the Realities of Racism for Rangatahi in Aotearoa - R4Aotearoa
36 months, $1,197,117

Mr Andrew Sporle, Independent Researcher, Auckland
Te Hao Nui
36 months, $1,198,494

Pacific Projects

Dr Siautu Alefaio-Tugia, Massey University, Auckland
Caring for our wisdom bearers: Pacific Matua (Elder) care
36 months, $599,713

Associate Professor Faafetai Sopoaga, University of Otago, Dunedin
Mental health and well-being of Pacific youth in higher education
36 months, $599,336

Dr Gerhard Sundborn, The University of Auckland
How has a 'water only' and 'healthy kai' school policy impacted on child obesity
36 months, $553,966


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