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Research For Life awards $82,745 to Wellington Medical Researchers

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Research For Life awards $82,745 to Wellington Medical Researchers

Wellington-based medical researchers have received up to $82,745 in Research For Life’s second funding round for 2021. In the earlier funding round in April, Research For Life approved six grants totalling $64,700.

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 up to the value of $76,490 to undertake innovative medical research and six travel grants, totalling $6,253, to assist local researchers meet the cost of presenting their research findings at medical conferences. The successful applicants for research grants were:

Euan Russell

Euan Russell, a researcher in Microbiology at Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded up to $20,000* towards a project to evaluate antimicrobial paints as a strategy for infection control in a clinical setting. [*This project was subsequently withdrawn by the applicant, and no funding will be claimed]

Dr Aaron Stevens

Dr Aaron Stevens, a senior lecturer in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine at the University of Otago, Wellington, was awarded up to $10,000 towards the study of the chemical signatures on genomic DNA which are important regulators of gene activity and act at the interface between the environment and gene regulation. The methylation of cytosine alters DNA structure and gene expression and impacts all aspects of cell function.
Understanding how DNA methylation patterns are regulated by environmental stimuli is a central question for managing health and disease and is a major contemporary challenge in human genetics.
Dr Steven’s team has recently demonstrated that oxidants generated by activated white blood cells can change the pattern of methylation at specific regions of human genomic DNA. They hypothesize that this is a key driver in the development and progression of inflammation-associated cancer.

In this project, they aim to understand the molecular consequences of this interaction, which will aid in the development of biomarkers for the early diagnosis of cancer risk.

Dr Xiaoyun Ren & Dr Collette Bromhead

Dr Xiaoyun Ren and Dr Collette Bromhead were awarded up to $25,000 to establish an assay to allow the detection of multiple antimicrobial resistance mutations directly from gonorrhoea clinical samples. Increasing antimicrobial resistance in Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the causal agent for gonorrhoea, is becoming a worldwide emergency. Surveillance of antimicrobial resistance phenotype and mutations that confer resistance are an essential part of combating resistance in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, only a small percentage of gonococci undergo phenotypic resistance testing, creating a big gap in antimicrobial resistance surveillance. This assay, when validated, will greatly increase our understanding of the resistance landscape of gonococci in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Dr Xiaoyun Ren is a senior scientist at the Health and Environment group, ESR. Dr Collette Bromhead is a senior lecturer at Molecular Microbiology, School of Health Sciences, Massey University.

Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald

Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald, an Anatomical Pathologist and Research Fellow at the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute in Wellington was awarded up to $15,000 to better understand how the spatial organization of the microenvironment of tumours affecting the oral cavity shapes further metastatic spread. Head and neck cancers account for approximately 3-5% of all cancers and are more common in men and people over age 50. The overall 5-year survival rate of patients with head and neck cancer is around 63%; however, patients with more advanced disease with metastatic burden have a much lower survival rate.

Dr Chang-McDonald’s research aims to better understand how the spatial organisation of the microenvironment of tumours affecting the oral cavity shapes further metastatic spread.

Dr Lynsey Sutton-Smith

Dr Lynsey Sutton-Smith is a doctoral candidate awarded a grant of up to $6,490 to research the survival journey post-Critical Illness and the Post Intensive Care Syndrome (PICS). This is the first research undertaken in New Zealand which shows patients who have been critically ill have a challenging recovery. It is estimated that a third of ICU survivors have issues with cognitive dysfunction, mental health disturbances, and physical function leading to disability and reduced health-related quality of life. This research is key to understanding the recovery journey that ICU survivors undertake and the level of disability they endure in the year post-critical illness.
Lynsey has many years of experience as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in the ICU at Wellington Hospital and is enrolled in a PhD from the University of Otago, Department of Psychological Medicine.

The successful travel grant applicants for this funding round were:

Anna Tribe

Anna Tribe, a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded a travel grant of up to $890 to attend the 2021 New Zealand Society for Oncology meeting in Rotorua. Anna’s research investigates why the treatments we have work poorly for the brain cancer glioblastoma.
Understanding the processes involved in this resistance to treatment is the first step in making treatments more effective in the future.

Sarah Sczelecki

Sarah Sczelecki, a PhD candidate at the School of Biological Sciences from Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded up to $980 to present her research at the Queenstown Research Week Cancer Satellite meeting. Sarah’s research focuses on understanding the genetic changes that occur during the early stages of ovarian cancer in both a mouse model and human cancer specimens.

This research aims to provide proof of concept that minute cellular changes within the ovary can be detected in circulation in the hopes to discover new biomarkers of early ovarian cancer.

Déanna Shea

Déanna Shea, a PhD candidate at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences at the Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded a travel grant of up to $611 to present her research findings at the Annual Symposium organized by the Hub for Extracellular Vesicle Investigations (HEVI). Deanna’s research focuses on exosomes, the smallest type of extracellular vesicles- in effect a small bubble of lipids containing proteins that are derived from cells and found in many biological fluids including breath.

She is currently working towards improvements in diagnostic techniques in the detection of lung cancer in its early stages by evaluating breath exosomes and their application as a liquid biopsy with minimum invasive treatment.    

Chaolan Zheng

Chaolan Zheng, a final year medical student at the University of Otago Wellington, was awarded a travel grant of up to $1,019 to present her research findings at the annual melanoma conference in Auckland this year. Her research was provoked after seeing a patient with advanced melanoma suffer a rare side effect of biological therapy that was refractory to multiple treatments. Chaolan, with Dr Oliver Dugena and Dr Annie Wong, reviewed various regimes and their associated success in treating this condition that greatly decreases quality of life. Their research aims to alert clinicians of the current evidence surrounding the management of this immunotherapy side effect.

Tessa Peck

Tessa Peck, a PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology at Victoria University of Wellington, was awarded a travel grant of up to $1,114 to present her research at the 2021 Australasian Winter Conference on Brain Research. Tessa’s work investigates the mechanisms underlying inflammatory immune cell trafficking into the brain in diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Often treatments for neuroinflammatory disorders leave patients immunosuppressed and vulnerable to infection of the central nervous system. Her research focuses on novel compounds that inhibit damaging immune cell trafficking into the brain without disrupting the ability of the immune system to protect the brain from infection.

Hannah van der Woude

Hannah van der Woude, a Master’s student in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Otago, Wellington, was awarded a travel grant of up to $1,639 to present her research findings at the Queenstown Research Week 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.

Associate Professor Rebecca Grainger, Chair of Research For Life’s Research Advisory Committee, said: “We congratulate 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 our communities, and it also has international impact.”

The closing date for the next round of Research For Life research grant applications, including travel grant applications is Thursday, 17 March 2022.


Research For Life awards $82,745 to Wellington Medical Researchers

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