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NZ researchers at forefront of hunt for acute pancreatitis


A University of Auckland researcher has received United States funding to test new potential drugs for one of the most common, and potentially lethal, abdominal diseases in urgent hospital admissions.

Acute pancreatitis, a sudden, excruciatingly painful inflammation of the pancreas, affects around 2,800 New Zealand adults a year and rising. But no specific treatment exists.

Dr Jiwon Hong, a Hugo Charitable Trust Research Fellow in the Department of Surgery and the School of Biological Sciences, is hoping to change that with the help of a USD50,000 (NZD79,000) grant from the US-based National Pancreas Foundation (NPF).

Dr Hong, the first New Zealander to receive a grant from NFP, will use the funding, along with ongoing support from the Hugo Charitable Trust, to carry out world-first, lab-based testing of three new drugs she has already identified in promising pilot studies. If results are positive, the next step would be clinical trials in patients.

Alcohol and gallstones are major contributors to the disease, which can affect people of all ages but is more common in the middle-aged and elderly. The incidence rate in Aotearoa New Zealand (58.4 per 100,000 people per year) is higher than the global incidence (33.7 per 100,000), and the rate among Māori is particularly high (95.2 per 100,000).

While most people recover after a few days of ‘supportive treatment’ with pain management and hydration, about a quarter of patients develop a severe form that is associated with failure of vital organs such as the heart, lung and kidneys. The risk of death in these patients is as high as 50 percent.

“New drug treatments are desperately needed,” says Dr Hong. “In the past few years, I have been investigating the reason why some patients develop organ failure. The lack of this understanding is why there is still no effective treatment for the severe acute pancreatitis or its associated organ failure, which represents a massive gap in medical treatments.”

Her new study will show whether one or more of the three potential drugs she has identified, which each target a different aspect of inflammation, reduces tissue damage and failure in vital organs.

“This is an exciting opportunity: as well as potentially leading to clinical trials, the study will deepen our understanding of the basis for this condition and why organs fail, which has relevance for other acute and critical diseases, such as major trauma and septic shock,” says Dr Hong.

“I’m hugely grateful for my support from the NPF, and from the Hugo Charitable Trust.”

Dr Hong is based in the University’s Surgical and Translational Research (STaR) Centre, a multidisciplinary network of researchers and surgeons focused on the development of new treatments at a time when diseases requiring surgical treatment, which include many cancers, account for almost a third of the global disease burden.

Her mentors are University of Auckland Associate Professor Anthony Phillips and Professor John Windsor, surgical researchers with expertise in pancreatitis; world-renowned inflammation researcher Professor Colin Green and Associate Professor Ilva Rupenthal, both from the Department of Ophthalmology.

Results from the drug study are expected late next year.


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