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Wellington-based medical researchers have received $105,810 in Research For Life’s first funding round for 2020.

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 eight researchers receive research grants to undertake innovative medical research. Given the uncertainty about international travel at this time, no travel grants were made in this funding round. The successful applicants for research grants were:

Theresa Pankhurst

Harnessing innate-like T cells as mucosal adjuvants for novel influenza vaccine development

Theresa, a PhD student in Immunology at Victoria University of Wellington, received $9,200 to undertake research to help develop novel influenza vaccine strategies that harness innate-like T cells as mucosal vaccine adjuvants. Her research is currently exploring the adjuvant potential of innate-like T cells to drive potent antigen-specific humoral and cellular immune responses capable of enhancing protection against influenza infection. The aim of Theresa’s research is to develop a safe and effective influenza vaccine that can be delivered to the mucosa via the intranasal route.

Freya Harrison

Real-time brain health measures in clinically relevant ovine stroke models

Freya, a Research Assistant at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, received $11,570 for the study of brain health changes within stroke and validation of a new, portable brain health monitoring device. Conventional equipment, such as MRIs, are powerful but inaccessible, and result in only 7% of Kiwi stroke patients receiving active treatment in time. It is believed this device can replace conventional MRI scans, providing stroke diagnostic and monitoring capabilities to rural and impoverished areas to improve their health outcomes.

Annabelle Greenwood

The Single-Cell Transcriptome of Rectal Cancers before Chemoradiation Therapy

Annabelle, a PhD student at the Department of Surgery and Anaesthesia, University of Otago, Wellington, received $18,000 to apply a state-of-the-art biomedical technique in rectal cancer research. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world leading to 1,250 deaths per year. Improving treatment strategies in advanced rectal cancer is currently a research priority to improve long term outcomes. The research will involve uncovering the genetic and immune ecosystem of tumours resistant and sensitive to chemoradiation therapy at high resolution.

Dr Andrew Munkacsi

Determining population-level genetic regulators of sphingolipid metabolism that contribute to the diversity of cancer progression in individuals

Andrew, a Senior Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington received $8,762 to undertake research to help find novel treatment avenues for cancer and provide insight into a fundamental process that is not completely understood in healthy people. Sphingolipids are critical structural and signalling molecules in all eukaryotic cells that, when defective in humans, are involved in the onset and progression of many human diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. However, the molecular regulation of sphingolipid metabolism is not fully understood in healthy or diseased cells. Andrew’s research is exploring the genes and processes that regulate defects in sphingolipid metabolism that underlie many forms of cancer. By identifying the genes that regulate defective sphingolipid metabolism, his research will identify processes that can be targeted with drugs to treat various forms of cancer that are reliant on sphingolipid metabolism, as well as further understand the metabolic regulation that is happening normally in healthy persons.

Morgane Brunton-O’Sullivan

The Extracellular Vesicle (EV) Profile of Cardiac Fibroblasts Stimulated with a Pro-inflammatory or Pro-fibrotic Stimulus in vitro

Heart disease remains the leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide and poses a significant health burden to New Zealand. Morgane Brunton-O'Sullivan received $15,717 to undertake research that investigates how heart cells influence cardiac repair. More specifically, Morgane is interested in examining how small particles produced by heart cells change in response to stimuli conditions which mimic the microenvironment of the heart following a heart attack. This research will allow us to elucidate how heart cells contribute to disease progression following a heart attack and is a first step in developing biomarkers which aim to measure cell activity. Morgane is a PhD candidate working in joint collaboration with the University of Otago and Wellington Regional Hospital.

Dr Alice Rogan

Biomarkers and their Relationship to Acute Brain Injuries in the Emergency Department. The BRAIN Study.

Dr Alice Rogan received $12,858 to conduct research investigating the use of blood tests to help diagnose Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). TBI can occur from a wide range of traumatic causes such as falls, motor vehicle accidents, sports or violent assaults and is a leading cause of death and disability in New Zealand. People can be diagnosed with mild TBI such as concussion or more severe TBI such as bleeding and swelling of the brain. Most New Zealanders will either have had, or know someone who has been affected by, TBI. At the moment, doctors use their examination skills to decide whether or not someone needs a head CT scan to exclude a more severe injury. This can be really difficult, particularly in people with severe concussion or those who may be intoxicated with drugs or alcohol. Alice’s research will explore whether or not blood tests can be used to help decide which patients need a CT scan and which patients may have concussion. Alice is an Emergency Medicine Research Fellow within the Department of Surgery at the University of Otago, Wellington and an ACEM Emergency Medicine Registrar at Wellington and Hutt hospitals.

Dr Kathryn Hally

Determining the clinical utility of a monocyte inflammatory score for predicting infarct expansion in patients with Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI)

Dr Kathryn Hally received $18,703 to undertake research to identify patients that are at-risk of worse repair after a heart attack. Heart attacks are a leading cause of death and disability in New Zealand and, for those that survive, life after a heart attack is far from free of health complications. The heart starts to repair soon after a heart attack but, in some patients, the quality of this repair process is compromised. Currently, there is no way to identify and therefore treat patients who experience detrimental repair. Kathryn’s research investigates the role of monocytes in driving the immune response to a heart attack and the potential for this cell to act as a novel biomarker for predicting worse heart repair. Kathryn is a Heart Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Otago, Wellington.

Professor Bart Ellenbroek

Can a positive environment reverse the effects of a maternal viral infection on the brain of the children?

Prof Ellenbroek received $11,000 for his and Dr Peng’s work to investigate how a maternal infection affects the brain of children (in-utero). The Covid-19 pandemic has shown once again how dangerous a viral infection can be. Perhaps less well-known to the general public is the fact that when pregnant females are infected with a virus, their unborn children have a substantially increased risk of developing mental disorders later in life. In this project, Prof Ellenbroek and Dr Peng combine their expertise in neurobiology and biochemistry to investigate all the protein changes seen in the sample exposed to a viral infection. Moreover, they will investigate whether exposure to an enriched environment prevents some (or all) of these changes. Together, their results may pave the way for the development of new therapies for disorders such as schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders and major depression. Bart Ellenbroek is Professor at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Psychology, and Lifeng Peng is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.

Associate Professor Rebecca Grainger, Chair of RFL’s Research Advisory Committee, said: “Research For Life congratulates the successful applicants from this funding round. The research they are undertaking is innovative, well-conceived and vital to achieving continuing improvements in health outcomes in the community.”

The closing date for the next round of Research For Life research grant applications is Friday, 28 August 2020. Restrictions on international due to COVID-19 have meant that travel grants have been suspended until further notice.




Research For Life awards $105,810 to Wellington Medical Researchers

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