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Wellington-based medical researchers have received up to $178,000 in Research For Life’s first funding round for 2023. 

Research For Life funds innovative quality research undertaken by researchers in the early stages of their careers who. Through their work, will advance the quality of healthcare in the Wellington region and beyond.

This round saw ten researchers receive research grants up to the value of $160,958 to undertake innovative medical research and seven travel grants, totalling $17,059 to assist local researchers meet the cost of presenting their research at medical conferences.

The successful applicants were:

Zaramasina Clark 

Dr Zaramasina Clark and Dr Sarah Sczelecki received a Research for Life grant of up to $25,008 to undertake research into an underexplored target for treating infertility. The theca cell layer of the ovarian follicle plays a key role during the development and ensuing release of a mature egg (ovulation). Until recently, the origins and identity of theca cell progenitors were unknown. This research will provide some of the first descriptions of key points in this progenitor to theca cell transition enabling the development of novel models to understand ovulation failure, a known cause of infertility and disease. Dr Clark is a Lecturer and Dr Sczelecki is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington.

Thomas Bird

Thomas Bird was awarded up to $16,227 to undertake research of FAM171 proteins, an understudied family of neuronal receptors with implications in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Thomas’ research will provide fundamental knowledge of the structure and function of these proteins that will broaden our understanding of these diseases and may aid in the development of new treatments. Thomas is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington.

Kerry Hilligan

Dr Kerry Hilligan and Dr David Sester received a $10,000 Research for Life grant to undertake research into respiratory infectious diseases, such as the flu virus, using a new cutting-edge technology. Spectral cytometry enables the simultaneous analysis of 50+ parameters from each individual sample at a single-cell level, enabling data collection on millions of cells. Dr Hilligan and Dr Sester will use this information to learn about the early immune response following a flu infection to identify potential targets for future vaccines. Dr Hilligan is a Senior Research Fellow and Dr Sester is Head of Cytometry at the Malaghan Institute.

Emily Paterson

Emily Paterson (PhD Candidate) received a $17,920 Research for Life grant investigating non-invasive biomarkers of endometriosis. Endometriosis is a common, painful disease affecting an estimated one in nine women and gender diverse people. Endometriosis can currently only be diagnosed through laparoscopic surgery, creating a significant diagnostic delay. Emily’s research focuses on detecting small particles called extracellular vesicles present within blood using flow cytometry as biomarkers of endometriosis. Her research aims to help reduce the diagnostic delay associated with endometriosis and enable clinicians to triage patients and prioritise those most likely to benefit from surgery.  

Helena Abolins-Thompson

Helena Abolins-Thompson received a $24,374 Research for Life grant to establish 3D models of different subtypes of breast cancer. She will be comparing integrated spheroid models derived from immortalised cell lines to patient-derived organoid models generated from primary patient samples. This will be done in an exclusively Māori patient cohort. Māori patients are at higher risk of breast, presenting at later and more advanced stages. Confocal microscopy and viability assays will be used to assess the effect of clinically relevant chemotherapies on these models with the wider goal of ensuring Māori are represented in therapeutic testing platforms, which will allow further exploration into more appropriate and equitable treatments for Māori patient cohorts. Helena is a PhD candidate in the Surgical Cancer Research Group at the University of Otago, Wellington. 

Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson received a $13,000 Research for Life grant to work on a new genetic test for use with cell and gene therapies. Cell and gene therapies, such as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells, are becoming a standard of care internationally for treatment of certain blood cancers. New cell and gene therapies are in development worldwide, including at Wellington’s Malaghan Institute of Medical Research. Andrew’s project will use genetics expertise to develop and optimise a new method to directly see and count the added gene segments inside CAR T-cells. This could help with safety and monitoring of new cell and gene therapies. Andrew has recently completed his PhD studies through the University of Otago Wellington, in collaboration with the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, and plans to continue a career in the field of genetics and genetic research.

Kathryn Hally

Dr Kathryn Hally received a $16,627 Research For Life grant to explore the molecular basis of cardiac healing in patients that have experienced a heart attack. Adverse healing after a heart attack can reduce heart function and conveys an increased risk of experiencing recurrent cardiac events (for example, another heart attack). Dr Hally’s research aims to characterise the role of neutrophils in the healing process after a heart attack. Neutrophils are an abundant cell type within the blood that can cause inflammation, and understanding how neutrophils are involved in healing the heart may reveal new targets for therapeutic interventions in the future. Dr Hally will be working with Zoe Moltschaniwskyj, Dr Ana Holley and Associate Professor Peter Larsen to conduct this research. All applicants are a part of the Wellington Cardiovascular Research Group and are based at the University of Otago, Wellington.  

Juan Canales

 Professor Juan Canales received a $16,970 Research for Life grant to develop a new model to study the transition from voluntary drug use to habitual, compulsive drug taking. Addiction can be seen as a habit in the sense that it involves a repetitive pattern of behaviour that is extremely hard to break. Drug habits become strongly associated with drug-related cues and contexts, such as drug paraphernalia, that are able to induce uncontrollable urges, contributing to the maintenance of a substance use disorder. Such drug habits often persist in spite of negative consequences. Professor Canales will develop a new animal model of drug habit formation that will provide new insights into the role of learning mechanisms in addiction and pave the way for the design of new medical treatments and interventions for substance use disorders. Professor Canales is Head of School for the School of Psychology at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

Amy Best

Ms Amy Best received a $2,000 Research For Life grant to undertake research to help former critically ill patients and families who have experienced a prolonged stay in the intensive care unit (ICU). Most people admitted to an ICU have a relatively brief length of stay, however, up to ten percent do not recover rapidly, experiencing a prolonged stay (≥8 days). Internationally there is very limited knowledge on prolonged ICU stays as well as the complexities, vulnerabilities, and traumas that a protracted stay creates for survivors and their family. Ms Best’s research is creating new knowledge by exploring survivors’ and support peoples’ lived experience territory across the first year following discharge from hospital in New Zealand. Through the narrative process, health, and healthcare issues as well as the support needs of these people be illuminated, thus, this research has the potential to improve the care and support ICU survivors receive. Ms Best is a PhD candidate at Massey University School of Nursing and a senior staff nurse in the ICU at Wellington Regional Hospital. 

Nur Hasanah Hamizan

Hasanah Hamizan received a $18,832 Research for Life grant to unpack the potential benefits of the kappa opioid receptor agonists as alternative food allergies treatment. Hasanah’s research will explore the little-known mechanisms and immune response (particularly mast cell activity) involved during kappa opioid receptor agonists treatment in animal models. Hasanah is a second year PhD student working under the supervision of Prof Anne La Flamme in the School of Biological Sciences and Centre for Biodiscovery at Victoria University of Wellington.

The successful applicants for travel grants were:

Kerry Hilligan

Dr. Kerry Hilligan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, received a travel grant of $3,002 to present her research on SARS-CoV-2 infection at the Keystone Symposium “Inflammation in the Lung” in Utah this year. Kerry is an immunologist with an interest in infectious disease and is working on identifying new vaccine targets for respiratory pathogens, such as the influenza and pneumococcus.  

Sonja Hummel

Sonja Hummel, a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, Wellington, received a travel grant of $2,127 to present her research findings at the 71st Scientific Meeting of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand in Adelaide in August this year. Her PhD research investigates the interplay between Neutrophil Extracellular Traps (NETs) and platelets. NETs are released by neutrophils, an important cell of the immune system, as a last resort mechanism of the immune system to fight infections while platelets help in maintaining homeostasis by coagulating when blood vessels experience injury. Sonja’s research investigates how the interaction between NETs and platelets potentially drives sustained inflammation that causes detrimental effects during a heart attack with the aim to improve the pathway of care of patients suffering from heart attacks. 

Cerys Blackshaw

Cerys Blackshaw received a $2,125 RFL travel grant to attend an international conference to present her research. Cerys has been studying differences found in international literature where female CVD patients have been shown to receive less guideline-based therapy and have worse outcomes. In our New Zealand cohort, we have found that women have less guideline-based therapy, but no negative health outcomes. Cerys’s research is investigating if these differences are due to systemic bias or a physiological difference in disease between men and women through her PhD at Otago University, working in the Surgery and Anaesthesia department at Wellington Regional Hospital.  

Hannah Lee-Harwood

Hannah Lee-Harwood is a researcher based in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. She received a $2,000 travel grant to attend the Enzyme Engineering XXVII conference in Singapore in October 2023. Hannah’s research is primarily focused on repurposing the FDA-approved, anthelmintic drug, niclosamide as a novel antibacterial therapy. As part of good antibiotic stewardship, it is important to understand how resistance to niclosamide may arise in the clinic. Hannah has taken a unique approach and combined functional metagenomics, and protein engineering to both discover primordial niclosamide resistance elements and determine if they can evolve clinically relevant levels of resistance. The crucial information gained here will be used to inform future antibiotic resistance surveillance programmes. 

Sarah Sczelecki

Sarah Sczelecki, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow from Victoria University of Wellington, has been awarded $3,175 to present her research at the Society for the Study of Reproduction meeting in Ottawa, Canada in July 2023. Sarah’s research focusses on using a murine model of early ovarian cancer with subsequent translation to human specimens to identify new candidate markers that may be used for early detection in female patients. 

Emma Symonds

Emma Symonds, a PhD student in the Department of Surgery and Anaesthesia at the University of Otago, Wellington, received a travel grant of $1,629 to present her research at the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles annual meeting in Seattle, Washington this year. Emma has developed an “in-dish” 3D multicellular model to represent the breast cavity after a mastectomy. Emma’s research looks at improving autologous fat graft retention rates to provide an equitable breast reconstruction option for patients that have had a mastectomy as part of their breast cancer treatment.  

Hannah van der Woude

Hannah van der Woude, a PhD student in the Department of Surgery and Anaesthesia at the University of Otago, Wellington, received a travel grant of $3,000 to present her research findings at the European Association for Cancer Research conference held in Berlin in October this year. Hannah’s research interest lies in understanding early-stage endometrial cancer, which has a disproportionately high incidence in New Zealand’s Māori and Pacific populations. Her intention is to investigate the role of the immune system in endometrial cancer and how current treatment methods might influence response to therapy, using a novel tissue explant model. 

Research For Life Awards $178,000 to Wellington Medical Researchers

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