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University of Otago welcomes science challenge role

Clocktower.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014 3:25pm

The University of Otago’s keystone role within the first of the Government’s multi-million dollar science challenges is likely to open up new and exciting opportunities for researchers and students.

The Government announced today that Otago will team up with an alliance comprising the University of Auckland, Massey University, and Crown Research Institutes AgResearch and Plant and Food Research, to deliver cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research to help New Zealand companies take advantage of global demand for foods with health benefits.

This ten-year challenge is approved with $30.6 million, subject to finalisation of contract conditions. A review at the end of five years means another $53.2 million becomes available for a second five-year period. Total funding for the High-Value Nutrition Challenge is up to $180.8 million over ten years.

Auckland University will administer the collaboration, the “High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge”, which will involve top scientists, technologists and clinicians from across New Zealand and internationally.

Otago’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie has warmly welcomed today’s announcement.

“We are delighted that the Government has embraced this collegial approach that brings together New Zealand’s leading science expertise, and we are determined to do our best to ensure this works,” he says.

One of the University’s strategic goals is to apply its excellence in research to help achieve nationally important outcomes. There will also be important benefits to the University through participating in the high-value nutrition challenge, he says.

“It will allow our researchers to apply their world-class expertise to collectively shared goals and research programmes, and bring in additional research income – all of which benefits students, who will be exposed to multi-disciplinary research with real industry applicability,” says Professor Blaikie.

“The sharing of expertise and facilities with collaborators over what will be a longer-than-usual research horizon of up to ten years will also result in a stable and vibrant scientific environment that is sometimes harder to achieve with shorter contestable funding time-frames.”

Researchers from Otago so far involved in the design stage of this, the first of ten multi-million dollar science challenges to be launched, include Dr Lisa Houghton and Dr Lisa Te Morenga from Otago’s Department of Human Nutrition, and Associate Professor Margreet Vissers from the Centre for Free Radical Research, University of Otago Christchurch.

Researchers from other departments, including Food Science, Microbiology & Immunology, Psychology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Anatomy, Marketing, Economics, as well as clinicians, are also likely to play important roles as the project is scaled up.

The science challenge aims to make important advances in understanding the interface between food, nutrition and disease, and developing new products for export markets.
Government Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman says it is exciting to see the first of the ten National Science Challenges launched.

“The High-Value Nutrition Challenge will stretch the New Zealand research community but the potential for validated nutritional claims of foods to improve public health and to add value to New Zealand’s exports is enormous.”

Last year Prime Minister John Key and the Minister of Science and Innovation, Steven Joyce, announced ten National Science Challenges, the result of a broad consultative process that gave every New Zealander the opportunity to shape the scientific future by creating a 10-year road map for our big-picture science.

Background on the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge

Five research institutes have been given the task of meeting the Government’s High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge. The Challenges were launched last year and aim to substantially change the way research is done in New Zealand through collaboration and across disciplines.

The aim is to increase the value of New Zealand raw materials and food exports through validating health claims for food and beverage products, leading to increased premiums for New Zealand products on global markets. Examples include a food product or ingredient that is scientifically proven to reduce the risk of heart disease or reduce a loss in cognition associated with early-onset Alzheimer’s. This would be similar to current products such as ANLENE milk products that are helpful in reducing bone mineral loss (and thus osteoporosis) and Flora Proactiv spreads which contain plant sterols, an active ingredient clinically proven to significantly lower cholesterol absorption.

A key theme of the High-Value Nutrition Challenge is to help develop new foods and beverages that improve health at different stages of people’s lives, from maternal through baby, infant, childhood and ageing.

Developing and applying biomarkers is part of the work that will be undertaken. Biomarkers are detectable characteristics that may indicate the presence of a physiological condition in humans, for example disease.

Understanding the existing food processing and food safety environment will be a key aspect of the research.

The Challenge is aimed at developing foods that are valued by consumers in terms of flavour, cost and sensory experience, and sustainability as well as having a health benefit.

For further information, contact

Professor Richad Blaikie
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise
University of Otago
Tel: 64 3 479 8513
Email: dvc.research@otago.ac.nz

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