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Wellington-based medical researchers have received $149,340 in Research For Life’s first funding round for 2019. Ten researchers received a total of $119,021.92 to undertake innovative medical research and 13 travel grants totalling $30,318.13 were approved to assist local researchers meet the cost of presenting their research findings at international conferences.

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.

The successful applicants for research grants were:

Dr Christina Baggott, a specialist respiratory medicine doctor and is currently undertaking a PhD in asthma at the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand and Victoria University of Wellington, received $10,150 to research how asthma treatments can be improved for patients. Asthma is a significant problem and affects over 10% of people in New Zealand. With more different types of asthma treatment regimens becoming available, Dr Baggott’s research is aiming to understand what matters most to people about their asthma treatments. Future treatments can be designed with these findings in mind, and current treatments can be used more appropriately leading to improvements in how patients’ asthma is managed.

Dr Davide Comoletti and his team of researchers received $14,000 to study reelin, a protein which is key to brain development and for which mutations have been implicated in autism and schizophrenia. Because of the complexity of the reelin structure and its function, Dr Comoletti’s team plan to study how reelin binds to its known receptors to activate them. Dr Comoletti is a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington.


Dr Lisa Connor, a lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington,

received $15,300 to investigate the molecular cues shared between immune cells during the initiation of an allergic immune response. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of allergic diseases in the world, affecting up to 20% of the population. The immunological mechanisms involved when an individual becomes allergic to an allergen are not well understood. Dendritic cells are master regulators of the adaptive immune system and provide the signals required to drive specific immune responses. The goal of this project is to develop a screening strategy to identify novel interactions between Dendritic cells and T cells (the cell population responsible for the symptoms of allergic disease) hoping to identify new targets for immunotherapies to stop allergic symptoms.

Dr Darren Day, a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, received $17,000 to investigate whether altered serotonin uptake leads to changes in how serotonin modifies the activity of enzymes that control how connections between neurons are made and broken. Depression and anxiety are a significant social problem that arise from both genetic and environmental influences that alter the way the brain responds to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Medications for treating depression often selectively target the serotonin transporter to prevent the reuptake of serotonin, and hence are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). There are natural human variations in the DNA sequence that controls how much of the serotonin transporter we have in the brain, which in turn influences the likelihood of suffering from depression. Using a genetic animal model of depression Dr Day will examine cells for changes in how key proteins involved in making connections are altered.

Dr Brendan Desmond received $13, 834 to undertake research into ‘liquid biopsies’, or blood tests which may aid in the earlier detection of bowel cancer. Bowel cancer is the second most ommon cancer in New Zealand with over 3000 new cases diagnosed and approximately 1200 deaths annually. Early diagnosis is key for reducing deaths; five-year survival for stage I and II disease is 90%, which drops to approximately 10% for Stage IV disease. Many people may not have symptoms until they have more advanced disease. Blood tests which can help detect bowel cancer early may help more people survive the disease.

Working in collaboration with the Wellington Surgical Cancer Research Group, Dr Desmond’s research aims to investigate expression of microRNA in both cancer tissue and blood to determine their use as ‘liquid biopsy’ for bowel cancer. Dr Desmond is a Research Fellow in Surgery at the Department of Surgery and Anaesthesia, University of Otago, Wellington. He completed his medical degree in Ireland before moving to New Zealand in 2015. Currently, he is a Masters student at the University of Otago, Wellington, and from next year he will commence advanced training in General Surgery.

Dr Joanna MacKichan, a senior lecturer in medical microbiology at Victoria University of Wellington, received $14,000 to examine the bacterial pathogen Bartonella Quintana which causes trench fever, a globally prevalent infection associated with poverty and homelessness. The bacteria thrive and persist for long periods in the bloodstream, evading immune clearance. B. Quintana express a specialised secretion system that injects bacterial effectors directly into host cells. Dr MacKichan and her team hypothesise that this system aids in manipulation of the immune response. Their preliminary data support this hypothesis. This is the first study into the function of B. Quintana effectors. Dr MacKichan proposes to characterise two key effectors and understand the mechanisms by which they hamper the host immune response to a bloodstream pathogen.

Dr Johannes Mayer, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, received $13,410.92 to undertake research into intestinal parasite infections. Around 1.5 billion people are affected by parasite infections worldwide, with chronic infections lasting for years. However, recent studies have also shown that certain parasites can protect from more severe autoimmune and allergic diseases and Dr Mayer plans to characterise the local immune cell populations in the infected gut that might be responsible. With the help of other researchers at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, Wellington, Dr Mayer plans to use a novel technique of tissue preparation and high-dimensional flow cytometry to simultaneously characterise over 20 innate and adaptive intestinal immune cell populations during different stages of parasite infection. His project is among the first to study intestinal immune responses during parasite infections and will provide essential information for the development of new vaccines and immunotherapies.

Terry O’Donnell, a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, Wellington received $4,280 to advance research into the link between cold housing and obesity. Over a third of New Zealanders are now classified as obese and those living in deprived areas are more likely to be part of this group. Mr O’Donnell’s PhD research will investigate the effect that temperature has on factors which cause obesity. In particular, it will assess whether exposure to cold temperatures may be stimulating poor eating habits.


Dr Amber Parry-Strong, a Diabetes Research Fellow at Capital and Coast DHB, received $7,047 to continue further two previously completed two studies examining the effect of a lower carbohydrate diet (<100g per day) in people with type 1 diabetes. Many people with type 1 diabetes choose to eat lower carbohydrate as this requires them to give less insulin. However, her first study demonstrated that in the absence of carbohydrate, protein is converted to glucose and hence insulin is required for the protein content of the diet. Standardly only carbohydrate is taken into account for insulin dosing. A second study trialled a ratio for estimating how much insulin to give for protein in a meal test setting. This study will trial the same ratio in a free-living population under normal conditions in a real-world environment.

Dr Abigail Sharrock, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Biotechnology in Professor Ackerley’s Microbial Biotechnology Research Group at Victoria University of Wellington received $10.000 to undertake research into the improvement of gene delivery vectors for gene directed enzyme prodrug therapy (GDEPT). GDEPT is a targeted anticancer strategy being developed to address the limitations of current chemotherapies including unwanted associated side-effects due to low selectivity of chemotherapeutic drugs.

Travel Grants were awarded in this round to the following:

Natalie Hammond, a PhD candidate from Victoria University of Wellington, received $1,500 to present her research findings at the Yeast Lipid Conference (YLC) in Ljubljana, Slovenia in May 2019. Natalie’s research entails investigating the molecular interactions of NPC1, a protein involved in cholesterol transport, that when mutated causes a rare, neuro-visceral disorder termed Niemann-Pick type C disease (NP-C) disease. Specifically, Natalie is working with NCR1 (the yeast orthologue of NPC1), to identify and characterise protein-protein interactions that will provide insight into the rare disease as well as cholesterol transport in healthy individuals.

Cintya Del Rio Hernandez, a PhD student in the Chemical Genetics Laboratory at Victoria University of Wellington, received $1,500 to present her research findings at the Yeast Lipid Conference at the Institut "Jožef Stefan", the leading Slovenian scientific research institute located in Ljubljana. Cintya’s research focuses on statins, one of the most prescribed drugs worldwide used to control the levels of cholesterol. Beyond their primary function, statins have shown potential as anticancer agents. Her intention is to develop combination therapies to enhance their efficacy against prostate and breast cancer. 

Dr Naomi Brewer, from the Centre for Public Health Research, Massey University, Wellington, received $3,445 to present her research findings at the World Indigenous Cancer Conference in Calgary, Canada. Naomi is an epidemiologist with research interests in cancer and inequalities. The research she will be presenting investigates the acceptability amongst Māori women of self-sampling for cervical-cancer screening. Naomi hopes that if it is acceptable in Māori and other women, this new method will be introduced in New Zealand and will increase cervical-cancer screening rates, without increasing the current disparities. 

Denise Steers, a PhD student at the Paediatric Department, Wellington Hospital/Suicide and Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Otago, Wellington, received $4,200 to present her findings to the second international conference on Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Intersex at Lincoln University, United Kingdom this year. Steers' research interest lies in the bioethics surrounding the health care provided for children born with a variation in sex characteristics. The research highlights the need for change especially concerning support for parents and for young people with a variation. Education/ training of health professionals’ communication, diversity, bias and ethical decision-making is recommended. 

Jude Ball, a PhD candidate at the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago Wellington, received $2,750 to present her research findings in Poland this year at a thematic meeting of the Kettil Bruun Society for Social Epidemiological Research on Alcohol. The conference focuses on an under-researched phenomenon: the international decline in youth drinking, which has occurred over the past 10-20 years in most high-income countries. Jude's doctorate aims to describe and explain concurrent declines in adolescent drinking, smoking, drug use and sexual activity that have occurred in New Zealand since 2000. 

Dr Laura Ferrer-Font, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Cancer Immunotherapy Programme at the Malaghan Institute, received $4,946 to present her research at the 34th Congress of the International Society of Advancement of Cytometry in Vancouver this June. She has extensive expertise in cellular immunology and with high-dimensional spectral flow cytometry. Within the last year, Laura has established, validated and evaluated multiple different 22 to 24-colour spectral flow cytometry panels developed for different cell types, tissues and disease models, and she will present part of her work at the conference. Also, she will be promoting New Zealand-based research to an international audience and discussing her finding with experts in the field. 

Alistair Brown, a postdoctoral researcher in the Ackerley Lab at the School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington was awarded $2,000 to present his research at Enzyme Engineering XXV in Canada this year. Alistair’s research focuses on as the discovery and development of novel antibiotic drug candidates. Applications of his research include high throughput screening for novel antibiotics and the development of biosensors to detect amino acids for use in both research and industry.

Kelsi Hall, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington received $2,000 to present her research findings at the biennial Enzyme Engineering Conference in Whistler, Canada this year. Kelsi’s research involves using directed evolution to evolve bacterial nitroreductases as a tool for targeted cell ablation. The aim of this research is to develop retinal degenerative disease models. This work offers prospects for the discovery of new drugs to combat human degenerative disease.  


Theresa Pankhurst, a PhD student in the Cellular Immunology and Vaccination group at Victoria University of Wellington, received $1,000 to showcase her research at the 19th International Congress of Mucosal Immunology meeting in Brisbane this year. Theresa’s research is focused on promoting enhanced humoral immunity towards pathogens that invade mucosal sites of the body by targeting Natural Killer T (NKT) cells as vaccine adjuvants. Theresa’s research goal is to develop effective adjuvant vaccines that provide long-lasting antibody-mediated protection against pathogens that infect the mucosae. 

Olga Palmer, a Masters student at Victoria University of Wellington, received $1,469.13 to present her research findings at the 19th International Congress of Mucosa I Immunology Meeting held in Brisbane this year. Olga's research interest is about vaccination and the resulting immune response. Her research involves comparing the immune responses to vaccines delivered via the skin or lung to determine any differences and the mechanisms by which these differences arise. Identifying the signals that shape distinct immune responses in these environments can be used to develop more effective vaccines.

Kaitlin Buick is a Master of Biomedical Science candidate at Victoria University of Wellington and works in collaboration with the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and the Ferrier Research Institute. Kaitlin received $1,000 to attend the International Congress of Mucosal Immunology conference in Brisbane, Australia. Her research interests include mucosal immunology and how the immune system can be enhanced to combat disease. Her thesis aims to investigate a novel way to improve mucosal vaccinations, through activation of mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells in the lung.

Alvey Little, a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington, is investigating how Bartonella Quintana subverts the immune system by modulating host cells using a molecular syringe called a type IV secretion system. Alvey has received $2,000 to assist him to present his research at the annual meeting of the American Society for Rickettsiology, an organisation that fosters research on a wide range of vector-borne bacterial pathogens.


Dr Johannes Mayer, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, received $1,628 to present a novel technique of tissue preparation and high-dimensional flow cytometry data at the International Conference of Mucosal Immunology in Brisbane this year. With the help of other researchers at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, Wellington he was able to simultaneously characterise over 20 innate and adaptive intestinal immune cell populations during different stages of parasite infection, which provide essential information about anti-parasite immune responses and help the development of new vaccines and immunotherapies.

Heidi Verhagen, a Masters student with the Rehabilitation, Teaching and Research Unit, University of Otago Wellington received $881 to present her research at the Australian Society for the Study of Brain Impairment and the New Zealand Rehabilitation Association Inaugural Trans-Tasman Conference in May 2019. Heidi, in her practice as a massage therapist, developed a manual therapy treatment that aims to improve pain and function by assisting the expression of non-intentional movements which are responses to hand pressure. Her research indicates non-volitional movement could be a beneficial component of massage therapy treatments for chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Last year, Research For Life approved 11 research grants and 10 travel grants constituting a total of $203,698 available to researchers.

The closing date for the next round of Research For Life grant applications - including travel grant applications – is Friday, 13 September 2019.





Wellington medical researchers awarded $149,340

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