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Innovative health research at Otago receives major funding

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posted by WM Admin on 4 June 2015

University of Otago media release, 4 June 2015

University of Otago researchers have been awarded more than $30M in new health research funding to support their world-class studies aimed at improving New Zealanders’ health and well-being.

The Health Research Council of New Zealand’s latest annual funding round results were announced today. Otago researchers gained 18 contracts, including three major multi-million, five-year programmes and 15 projects.

Otago’s recipients span the University’s campuses in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington and each campus hosts one of the major new programmes.

Programmes focus on cancer genetics, key immune cells, and healthy housing

The new Dunedin campus-based programme, led by Pathology’s Professor Antony Braithwaite, will investigate the complex role that the p53 tumour suppressor genepathway plays in many cancers. Defects in this pathway are commonplace in cancers, making them an attractive target for improved therapies. The researchers will also examine links between cancer and inflammation. 

Professor Anthony Kettle of the University’s Christchurch campus will lead a programme studying the oxidative action of a common type of white blood cell known as neutrophils. These cells are a key line of defence against harmful bacteria, but when unrestrained during inflammation they damage healthy tissue. This aberrant activity occurs in many diseases, including pneumonia, arthritis, and heart disease. The long-term goal is to advance the diagnosis and treatment of inflammatory diseases dominated by neutrophils.

At the University’s Wellington campus Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, head of the award-winning He Kainga Oranga: Housing and Health Research Programme, will lead an HRC programme that will translate their housing research to practice for children’s health. The researchers will examine health issues arising from children’s exposure to poor housing and trial several interventions, including one to insulate and warm newborn babies’ homes and provide them with feather duvets, and another to study air quality and possible health effects on children living in housing located beside arterial roads.

The three programmes are funded at nearly $5M each over five years.

15 new Otago projects to tackle a wide range of pressing health issues

Otago’s 15 new HRC projects range from studying a newly discovered neuronal pathway implicated in polycystic ovarian syndrome to testing how effectively modifications to front door steps can reduce falls and injuries around the home.

Several projects focus on child and young people’s health and include studies on the genetic causes of epilepsy, improving asthma outcomes in Maori children, and whether airway inflammation and infection can be reduced in cystic fibrosis by inhibiting white blood cells’ bleaching activity.

Three studies focus on the health of older New Zealanders. One will calculate osteoarthritis’s growing burden on the country’s ageing population and compare the promise and feasibility of potential strategies in cost-effectively managing this issue. 

Another study will trace people’s oral health from childhood into mid-life and examine its links with cardiovascular, and other, aspects of health. A third aims to help develop evidence-based policy and programmes to balance mobility and safety issues amongst older drivers. 

New cancer genetics-related projects include studies into breast cancer, acute myeloid leukaemia, and stomach cancer. The first project involves investigating the signalling pathways relating to Trib1, a protein that is often over-expressed in breast cancer. 

The second project will use zebrafish to study a newly discovered genetic pathway that may cause acute myeloid leukaemia and screen for drugs that selectively target this pathway.

Another study involves growing stomach tissue buds to test several drugs identified as preferentially killing cells that carry a specific mutation causing deadly diffuse stomach cancer. 

Other Otago projects focus on areas such as tobacco control in New Zealand, discrimination in healthcare, testing a seaweed extract nasal spray to treat adult asthma attacks caused by viral infections, and investigating potential therapies for preventing and treating heart disease in patients with diabetes.

Latest HRC funding successes reflect excellence of Otago researchers

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie warmly congratulated all the HRC programme and project recipients on their “dazzling success” in the funding round. 

“It is very pleasing to see that the excellent and innovative research proposals developed by our staff can now be pursued to continue to contribute to improved health and well-being of New Zealanders. Health Research Council funding has for the past 25 years underpinned important advances in health diagnostics, treatment, prevention and policies and this year will be no exception,” Professor Blaikie says.

The latest funding follows the announcement of the HRC Emerging Researcher First Grants and Feasibility Study recipients last month. Eight of the nine Emerging Researcher grants went to Otago staff, as did five of the nine Feasibility grants.

This brings Otago’s funding in the 2014 annual HRC round to a total of $31.98M.