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Better Patient Care At Heart Of NZ’s $35M Spend On New Research Programmes

Research to eradicate inequities in cancer survival for Māori has gained funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC). It’s one of several five-year research programmes awarded a combined total of $35 million announced today.

Cancer provides a vivid picture of the health inequities that exist between Māori and non-Māori, with Māori having poorer survival for 23 of the 24 most common cancers diagnosed in Aotearoa New Zealand.

With a $5 million programme grant from the HRC, a team led by Associate Professor Jason Gurney, from the University of Otago, aims to build the evidence needed to drive improvement in the availability and accessibility of cancer services for Māori.

The team will analyse the current state of cancer treatment and provide an ‘evidence base’ for planning and directing resources towards areas of highest treatment need. They will also gather evidence, which is currently lacking, around barriers to accessing high-quality cancer care services, including the role of travel for Māori who live rurally or in areas of high deprivation as well as the acceptability of cancer services for Māori and their whānau.

The research was funded through the HRC’s Rangahau Hauora Māori investment stream, designed to support Māori health research that upholds rangatiratanga and utilises and advances Māori health knowledge, resources, and people.

“We need to create a future cancer care environment that is more responsive to Māori,” says Associate Professor Jason Gurney, noting that equity in workforce development must be a cornerstone consideration in doing that. “Our cancer care workforce is currently not fit-for-purpose, and the likelihood of a Māori patient being treated by a Māori clinician is remote,” he says.

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The programme will also evaluate the likely future cancer burden for Māori, providing vital context for the cancer control sector to plan the size and scope of future services. “We aim to meaningfully contribute to eradicating inequities in cancer survival for Māori, by learning from what we have done previously and considering how this needs to change. Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua – walking backwards into the future with our eyes fixed on the past.”

Another team awarded funding in today’s announcement will address the significant suffering and cost caused by functional gut disorders affecting more than 30 per cent of people worldwide.

The team led by Professor Greg O’Grady, surgeon and scientist based at the University of Auckland, has pioneered a range of cutting-edge medical devices to diagnose, monitor and treat some of the most poorly understood and challenging gut conditions in clinical medicine.

With renewed funding, the team can now focus on moving a range of technologies out of the laboratory and into the hands of clinicians, on a global scale.

Problems such as chronic nausea, indigestion, incontinence, and irritable bowel syndrome are highly prevalent in Aotearoa New Zealand, with Māori about 20 per cent more likely to be hospitalised with a gastrointestinal disorder.

Professor O’Grady says his team’s unique high-resolution devices can accurately measure and map gastrointestinal activity and have the potential to revolutionise the field of gastroenterology, meaning less ‘trial-and-error care’ and more personalised therapy.

“Existing tests requiring scopes or x-rays are excellent at diagnosing structural problems, such as polyps, cancers, inflammation or cancer, but they can’t identify ‘functional’ issues in the gut, which is what a greater number of patients suffer from,” he says.

His team’s innovations are non-invasive and designed to provide answers to gut issues within hours, not months. Their most mature invention to date – a stretchable electronic device worn over the stomach to measure signals coming from the stomach (much like an ECG records the electrical signal of the heart) – is already in use in a number of clinics to produce accurate reports on gastric motility.

Their new programme involves 17 clinical studies and an assembled consortium of experts from six countries. “While this programme is firmly centred in Aotearoa New Zealand, we will act as the hub for an international network of partnerships working together to reform care in complex gastrointestinal disorders, for the wellbeing of future patients globally.”

Chief executive of the HRC, Professor Sunny Collings, says all research supported by this year’s programme funding should make a significant difference to health and help advance its field of research.

She adds, the highly collaborative nature of this year’s programmes will strengthen their potential impact both locally and globally. “We look forward to what the next five years will bring as these teams pursue big goals, with a very clear line of sight to making a difference in patient outcomes and care.”

See below for the full list of 2023 HRC Programme Grants announced today. To read lay summaries, go to hrc.govt.nz/resources/research-repository and filter by proposal type [Programmes] and year [2023].

2023 Programme Grant recipients

Professor Antony Braithwaite and Associate Professor Tania Slatter, University of Otago

Investigating the functions of p53 isoforms and their clinical translation

60 months, $4,999,700

Associate Professor Jason Gurney, University of Otago (funded through the Rangahau Hauora Māori category)

Whakatōmuri, whakamua: Walking backwards into the future of Māori cancer care

60 months, $4,999,905

Professor Leigh Hale and Mrs Bernadette Jones, University of Otago; and Dr Ofa Dewes, Tongan Health Society Inc and The University of Auckland.

Taunakitanga Takitini: reframing self-management support for all in Aotearoa

60 months, $4,999,810

Professor Ngaire Kerse MNZM, The University of Auckland

Impact of Dementia mate wareware and Solutions for Equity in Aotearoa: IDEA

60 months, $4,941,560

Professor Martyn Nash, The University of Auckland

Translating biophysical models for heart health

60 months, $4,999,999

Professor Gregory O'Grady, The University of Auckland

Translational advances in GI surgical recovery and motility disorders

60 months, $4,999,999

Professor Rachael Taylor, University of Otago

Whakatipu Rakatira: improving sleep as a vehicle to grow healthy future leaders

60 months, $4,999,677

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