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Otago scientist gains grant for innovative gout research

Sun striking the Clocktower

Monday, 13 April 2015 7:57am

Julia Horsfield image
Associate Professor Julia Horsfield

A University of Otago pathology researcher has gained a Health Research Council Explorer Grant to identify new drug targets to combat gout, a severely painful and debilitating condition caused by high blood levels of uric acid.

Associate Professor Julia Horsfield is one of four recipients nationally in the latest round for the $150,000 Explorer grants, which support research proposals that advance ideas that are transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact.

Working with Otago colleague Associate Professor Tony Merriman (Biochemistry) and the University of Auckland’s Dr Justin O’Sullivan, Associate Professor Horsfield will study the genetics behind the body’s regulation of uric acid.

Previous genetic studies have identified approximately 30 areas of the human genome that control uric acid levels. The genetic regions are predicted to affect the production of proteins important for uric acid balance, but how this happens, and exactly which genes are involved, is unknown.

The researchers will use an innovative zebrafish readout system that can identify the function of the genetic regions. Together with cell-based studies, the zebrafish bioassay will pinpoint how these regions control uric acid levels.

Zebrafish are used as a model in health research as they have a high degree of genetic similarity to humans and many of their biological systems and molecular pathways closely resemble our own.

Associate Professor Horsfield and her team suspect that most of the 30 DNA regions won’t affect protein function per se, but instead work like rheostats to control the quantity of particular proteins that balance uric acid levels.

“If we can prove that this is indeed the case, this would open up avenues for developing new classes of drugs to prevent or treat the condition,” she says.

In New Zealand gout affects 10-15 percent of Maori and Pacific Island men, and 3-4 percent of European men. About four times as many men as women get gout.

For more information, contact:

Associate Professor Julia Horsfield
Department of Pathology
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 7436
Email julia.horsfield@otago.ac.nz

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