Wellington-based medical researchers have received up to $91,344 in Research For Life’s second funding round for 2020. In the earlier funding round in May, Research For Life approved eight grants totalling $105,810.
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 five 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:
Dr Richard Carroll
Dr Carroll, an endocrinologist at Wellington Regional Hospital and Hutt Valley Hospital, was granted up to $5,565 to undertake, with colleagues, a study assessing the prevalence of inherited genetic mutations predisposing to primary hyperparathyroidism using whole-exome sequencing in New Zealanders.
Patients with primary hyperparathyroidism are at increased risk of osteoporosis and fractures, kidney stones, and cardiovascular disease. The condition is typically treated with surgical removal of the abnormal parathyroid gland. Up to 60% of selected patients with primary hyperparathyroidism will have a predisposing genetic mutation, and identification of these patients significantly changes management strategies. Early detection of these predisposing variants in New Zealand hyperparathyroidism patients will be extremely important for determining clinical treatment and type of surgical intervention, potentially saving patients an invasive operation. Results from this project have the potential to impact on clinical practice in New Zealand and overseas.
Olivia, a PhD student at the Department of Surgery and Anaesthesia at the University of Otago, Wellington, was granted up to $18,889 to investigate the immunomodulatory role of tumour-derived extracellular vesicles (tEVs) in colorectal cancer (CRC), with a specific focus on antigen-presenting cells (APCs).
EVs have been identified as significant mediators of carcinogenesis and are an attractive novel therapeutic target for disrupting tumour signalling.
Continued research to elucidate the immunomodulatory role of tEVs could provide avenues for therapeutic intervention, potentially through the interference of EV-mediated signalling. Such therapies could include targeting or re-educating macrophages or dendritic cells towards an anti-tumorigenic phenotype.
This is particularly important for colorectal cancer, as New Zealand has one of the highest incidence rates of colorectal cancer worldwide and it is essential to explore novel therapies to minimise the global burden of this disease.
Dr Melanie McConnell
Dr McConnell, a Senior Lecturer in Biology and Genetics at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, was granted up to $19,050 to investigate a new mechanism by which cancer cells can resist therapy.
Dr McConnell’s group have observed that cancer cells treated with chemotherapy can survive that therapy if they physically interact with a type of non-cancer cells commonly found in their environment. If research can understand how cancer cells ‘co-opt’ these normal cells to enhance their own survival, then researchers can work out how to prevent this from happening.
This would then improve the efficacy of anti-cancer therapy.
Dr Joanna MacKichan
Dr MacKichan, a Senior Lecturer in Medical Microbiology at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, was granted up to $20,000 to investigate meningococcal adherence during carriage.
Neisseria meningitidis is a bacterial pathogen that is usually carried asymptomatically in the upper airway tissues but occasionally can cause severe, invasive meningococcal disease. Early interactions between the bacteria and the host mucosal airway tissues remain poorly understood, even though it can lead to invasive disease or pathogen transmission to new hosts. Our previous work identified a meningococcal protein important for the adherence of the bacteria to host airway cells. While this protein was previously thought to only play a role in acquiring host iron, we have demonstrated that it is important for adherence in the host. We have further shown that this protein manipulates host cells, impairing their ability to migrate during wound healing, which may further predispose toward the development of invasive disease. Our study aims to determine how this protein mediates attachment to the host, identify the parts of the protein that play a role in adherence, and determine host proteins it is binding to.
These findings will be relevant for understanding how harmless carriage of meningococci can progress to invasive disease and will lay the foundation for the development of improved vaccines to prevent asymptomatic carriage of meningococci.
Dr Claire Henry
Dr Henry, a research fellow in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynaecology & Women’s Health at the University of Otago Wellington was granted up to $27,840 to investigate novel biomarkers for endometrial cancer.
New Zealand Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of endometrial (uterine) cancer, and to our detriment, this is rising in young women. The Mirena is a long-acting reversible contraceptive device that has gained traction as a possible alternative treatment option to surgery for women with endometrial cancer. However, early evidence shows 1 of 3 women will have progression of their disease whilst using the Mirena.
This research will investigate whether a blood test using novel biomarkers can determine who will benefit most from this or who will still need surgery as the first line of care.
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 Thursday, 18 March 2021. Restrictions on international travel due to COVID-19 have meant that travel grants have been suspended until further notice.