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Thursday 29 October 2020 4:27pm

The work of 22 University of Otago researchers has been recognised with Career Development Awards from the Health Research Council.

More than $2.7 million has been awarded to the University to further work in areas ranging from diabetes and stroke, to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and mental health.

Three scientists received the prestigious Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowships, worth $1.7 million. Running for four years, the funding will further research into fertility, cancer, and disease-induced protein degradation, respectively.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says the University is grateful for the funding, which will support the career development of “bright and ambitious researchers”.

“Not only will the research itself lead to important advances in healthcare and well-being, but the projects will allow many of the recipients to advance successfully to the next stage of their careers.”

In total, the University of Otago received $2.3 million for general Career Development Awards, $197,600 for Māori Health Career Development Awards, and $196,980 for Pacific Health Career Development Awards. Nationally, the Health Research Council distributed $13.3 million across all three categories.

2021 Career Development Awards (General)

Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship

Elodie Desroziers image
Dr Elodie Desroziers.

Dr Elodie Desroziers, University of Otago
Unravelling the role of glial cells in fertility regulation
48 months, $506,917
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common infertility disorders affecting 1 in 10 women of reproductive age in New Zealand and worldwide. PCOS is characterised by the presence of at least two of three diagnostic criteria: elevated androgen hormones, menstrual dysfunction and multiple cyst-like follicles in the ovary. Although commonly considered an ovarian disorder, the brain is now a prime suspect in both the development and maintenance of PCOS. Glial cells outnumber neurons by 10 to 1 in the human brain. Traditionally glial cells have been considered to be passive contributors to brain function resulting in a pronounced neurocentric bias among neuroendocrinologists. To date, no study has investigated a potential role of glial cells in fertility disorders such as PCOS. Therefore, I propose here to unravel the role of glia in physiological regulation of fertility and in the pathological anovulatory disorder Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.

Sunali Mehta image
Dr Sunali Mehta.

Dr Sunali Mehta, University of Otago
Adapting to a CINister genome: regulating chromosomal instability and metastasis
48 months, $600,000
Cancer is a major health burden in New Zealand and accounts for one in three deaths. Cancer-related deaths are mainly due to spread of the disease (metastasis) and resistance to treatment. These features are a result of tumour evolution, which is driven by continuous changes in the DNA called chromosomal instability (CIN). Our study aims to understand how CIN contributes to the tumour cell's ability to manipulate the patient's immune response, spread to distant organs and develop resistance to treatment. This study will enable us to identify individuals whose tumours have acquired the ability to evolve and are more likely to have a poor outcome, while providing information on novel ways of targeting pathways that promote CIN in tumours.

Adam Middleton image
Dr Adam Middleton.

Dr Adam Middleton, University of Otago
Protein degradation: from understanding to application
48 months, $599,999
Disruptions to protein degradation are an underlying cause or consequence of many diseases, including cancer and neurodegenerative disease. Up to 80 per cent of protein degradation happens through the ubiquitin-proteasome system, yet there are limited treatment options that target this process. A major contribution to the paucity of therapeutics is the complexity of the ubiquitin system. Here, we will focus on the central determinants of the degradative ubiquitin signal, the ubiquitin conjugating enzymes, to understand how they work, and how their activity can be precisely and specifically modulated. Advancing our detailed understanding of how these enzymes contribute to protein degradation will allow the development of more targeted therapeutic approaches.

Clinical Research Training Fellowship

Dr Mercedes Burnside, University of Otago, Christchurch
CREATE Trial; Community deRivEd AutomaTEd insulin delivery
24 months, $180,000
Commercialised automated insulin delivery (AID) systems have demonstrated improved outcomes in type 1 diabetes (T1D); however, they can be prohibitively expensive if an individual is without access to health insurance or health funding subsidy. Freely available open-source algorithms, paired with commercial insulin pumps, and continuous glucose monitoring make up the so-called “DIY” AID system. Limited data on the DIY approach have shown promising results, but data from a large randomised control trial are lacking. As a paediatric endocrine trainee with a passion for diabetes, I am undertaking a fulltime PhD on the CREATE Trial, the first randomised, multi-site trial comparing DIY AID to standard insulin pump therapy. 100 participants with T1D aged 7 – 70 years, will be recruited from four sites in New Zealand. Establishing the effectiveness and safety of the open-source algorithm will address the inequity of care for people with T1D in New Zealand and worldwide.

Ms Sarah Goldsbury, University of Otago, Christchurch
Māori whānau experiences of neuropsychological assessment for FASD
36 months, $260,000
I am a Clinical Neuropsychologist of Ngāti Porou and Te-Aitanga-a-Hauiti whakapapa. I undertake the neuropsychological component of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) assessments. I work alongside children and youth in temporary and permanent care, and through Youth Court referrals. I am one of few Māori clinicians in this field of clinical practice and research. To date, this is an emerging field of research in Aotearoa, and the impacts of institutional racism within this process and protocol have not been identified. The purpose of this research is to explore and document Māori whānau experiences of the neuropsychological processes in FASD assessment. I will utilise a Kaupapa Māori methodological approach for this qualitative study, using semi-structured interviews, and inductive thematic analysis. The findings of this study will utilise participant voices as experts to formulate how neuropsychological assessment for a diagnosis of FASD can be more responsive and acceptable to Māori whānau.

Dr Ngaire Keenan, University of Otago, Wellington
Defining Māori epilepsy burden and developing an approach for future research
24 months, $173,333
Epilepsy, the most common serious neurological disorder in childhood, affects ~4000 New Zealand children. Although children with epilepsy may live normal lives, 30 per cent have uncontrolled seizures and poor outcomes. Epilepsy is 40 per cent more common in Māori children than other ethnicities. International reports suggest that higher rates of epilepsy result from preventable causes which can be reduced with successful public health initiatives. Dr Ngaire Keenan is a Māori Paediatric Neurology trainee who plans to become a New Zealand clinician scientist. Her PhD aims to describe the syndromes, aetiologies, comorbidities and management of epilepsy in Māori children compared to non-Māori children. If the increased rate of epilepsy in Māori children is due to preventable causes, then culturally appropriate health strategies can be implemented to promote positive change. She will also develop strategies to identify epilepsy cohorts for future research which will ultimately aid her long-term career goal of improving childhood epilepsy outcomes.

2021 Māori Health Career Development Awards

Māori Health PhD Scholarship

Ms Jordon Lima, University of Otago
Equitable Application of Circulating Tumour DNA to the New Zealand Population
36 months, $141,000
Circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) is DNA released by a tumour into the bloodstream and represents a novel class of blood marker for cancer detection. ctDNA can potentially change how cancer is diagnosed and how patients are monitored during and after treatment. Before ctDNA can be integrated into the New Zealand healthcare system, we must test the technology's clinical utility and determine its best application for reducing health inequities, particularly amongst Māori and rural communities. In this proposed PhD research, I will analyse ctDNA testing for surveillance of stage 2–3 colorectal cancer patients on the West Coast of the South Island. Māori health providers will co-design this study, which will add personalised ctDNA testing to patients post-treatment surveillance plan for approximately 1–2 years. Māori co-design and integration in this project will ensure ethical issues are identified, benefits to Māori are optimised, and tikanga is retained in future ctDNA use.

Māori Health Masters Scholarship

Mr Witana Petley, University of Otago
Experiences of Stroke Rehabilitation for Māori Stroke Survivors and their whānau
24 months, $31,600
Stroke is the second leading cause of death and disability in New Zealand with notable ethnic and socioeconomic disparities. Māori are more likely to have a stroke event compared to non-Maori and are also experiencing strokes at a younger age. Stroke survivors and their caregivers' collective experiences of stroke rehabilitation have been explored and have found positive benefits when caregivers have had active input during physical rehabilitation. However, this research has not been explored for Māori stroke survivors and their whānau members. This research will aim to identify what the current experience of stroke rehabilitation is for our Māori Stroke Survivors and their whānau members. The intention of this study is to identify what type of support will be best-suited to our Māori stroke survivors and their whānau members during their rehabilitation journey.

Māori Health Summer Studentship

Miss Brooke Bridges, University of Otago, Wellington
Understanding how the supportive care needs of Māori with cancer are assessed
3 months, $5,000
Culturally appropriate supportive cancer care for patients is an essential part of the care pathway and vital to improving cancer outcomes for Māori yet little is known about how these needs are assessed. Māori have higher rates of most cancers, co-morbid conditions and poorer survival rates compared to non-Māori. Previous research in Aotearoa/New Zealand identified issues with the supportive care experienced by Māori whānau including unaddressed cultural, spiritual accommodation and financial needs along with displacement from family and community during treatment. Recent work has identified that a supportive care needs assessment tool can be modified successfully to accurately measure the support care needs of Indigenous Australians. This research project aims to use qualitative methods to identify how the supportive care needs of Māori patients and whānau experiencing cancer are currently assessed in Aotearoa/NZ.

Ms Raiha Cook, University of Otago, Wellington
An inquiry into Raukura integration into Euro-centric Otago University
4 months, $5,000
Raukura (students who Māori-medium school graduates, such as Kura Kaupapa Māori, Kura-a-iwi, Kura Māori) will have had an undeniably different schooling experience than those who graduated through mainstream high schools. Once graduated from high school, the next step of education for the majority of these graduates is to attend University. The University of Otago, known as New Zealand's oldest University, has gained a reputation for quality research skills, and teaching staff. This inquiry will look into Raukura integration to a more Euro-centric style of teaching, which is predominantly the style of teaching at the University of Otago. The inquiry will provide a te ao Māori perspective of Raukura experiences through the lens of a current Raukura student attending the University of Otago.

Miss Sade Gilbert-Perenise, University of Otago, Wellington
Utilisation of Wai for the Holistic Wellbeing of Māori
3 months, $5,000
This project aims to understand how wai (water) utilisation is significant to the holistic well-being of Māori. Te Whare Tapa Wha model will be used (tinana, wairua, hinengaro and whānau) to explore how wai might be used to enhance Māori health and well-being. The summer studentship will include a literature review and interviews with 3–4 participants with expertise in matauranga Māori and Tikanga Māori associated with the use of wai.

Ms Jordon Lima, University of Otago
Investigating Genetic Links Between Height and Gout in Māori and Pacific people
3 months, $5,000
Gout, an inflammatory form of arthritis disproportionately affects Māori and Pacific people. Recently in a cohort of Māori and Pacific people with gout, a genetic variant unique to these populations has been identified that reduces risk of gout for those that are carriers. Surprisingly the variant also reduces height, by ~4 cm if an individual carries the variant. It is important that these findings are replicated in a second independent cohort so that research can then be carried out to understand the biology that underlies this variation. The aim of this summer studentship is to carry out the replication work.

Ms Saskia van der Wilt, University of Otago
Physiotherapists use of green-space for life long health conditions
2 months, $5,000
The intervention of a green space is seen to positively influence the 'being' of hauora outcomes in prevention and rehabilitation. The purpose of the study is to gain insight into how physiotherapists' knowledge of the typical prescription and management of green spaces in a clinical practice has a positive impact on Māori with life-long conditions specific to hauora.

2021 Pacific Health Career Development Awards

Pacific Health Knowledge Translation Grant

Dr Losa Moata'ane, University of Otago
Reducing Health Inequalities. Pacific Experiences in DHB System
4 months, $5,000
The principal purpose of my research was to analyse the Pacific health sector experience during the health reforms that began in the year 2000, which established District Health Boards (DHBs) and required, for the first time, an explicit focus on reducing health inequalities. It is a qualitative piece of research undertaken by an 'insider', which aims to capture the stories and experiences, voices and viewpoints of those trying to paddle the popao (canoe) to reduce Pacific health inequalities during this period of intensive reform. This funding will be used to further disseminate my results to the wider Pacific Communities particularly with Churches, Women's groups, Elderly people's groups and Youth. These groups are less likely to engage in policy discussions and/or policy development.

Miss Jaye Moors, University of Otago
Metabolic disease in Polynesian adults and adolescents in New Zealand
4 months, $5,000
Metabolic disease is twice as likely to affect Māori and Pacific peoples in New Zealand compared to the general population. It affects these populations at an earlier age resulting in greater morbidity, disability, and lower life expectancy. This project aimed to 1) evaluate the current physical health status of young Pasifika living in NZ, and 2) identify Polynesian-specific genetic variants to metabolic disease in people of Māori and Pasifika descent in New Zealand. The dissemination of the research findings from this project is crucial as these findings will lead to improved understanding and medical approaches for Māori and Pasifika people in NZ, as everyone deserves biologically informed healthcare.

Mr Troy Ruhe, University of Otago
The 'Niu Movement' – The effectiveness of Circuit Based Exercise in Communities
4 months, $5,000
The effectiveness of circuit based exercise utilising Cook Islands dance has proven to be effective in a small cohort of Pacific peoples in Dunedin, New Zealand. Furthermore, it was shown to be acceptable and popular in Cook Islands residents in Rarotonga. Fono will now be held for the communities to present the research back to the communities to inform future decisions for the programme implementation.

Pacific Health PhD Scholarship

Mr Jordan Taylor, University of Otago
Decoding the genome of Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains endemic to the Pacific
36 months, $129,550
Tuberculosis is no longer a significant issue for New Zealand. However, with Pacific peoples experiencing rates 21-fold higher than their European counterparts, tuberculosis remains a significant Pacific health issue that disproportionately affects Pacific peoples. Within the Pacific community, the Mycobacterium tuberculosis strain, which to date has not been identified in non-Pacific, has accounted for 69 per cent of all Pacific cases within the last five years. With this strain having little dedicated research, and significantly affecting Pacific health, improving our understanding of the origins and genomic structural variants of this strain could provide an insight into the biological interplay that predisposes Pacific. Establishing the landscape of this disease will be critical in informing public health initiatives in reducing health inequalities in Pacific.

Pacific Health Masters Scholarship

Mr Oka Sanerivi, University of Otago
Culturally responsive Physiotherapy approaches for working with Pacific children
24 months, $32,430
The aim of this research is to explore culturally responsive physiotherapy approaches to improve the health and well-being of Pacific children. Pacific families and physiotherapists will be interviewed utilising a Pacific quantitative research methodology (Talanoa) to explore their cultural knowledge with respect to health, with the view of evaluating the data to construct a model of care and/or clinical practice guidelines for physiotherapists working with children in Aotearoa New Zealand. These are to be disseminated to Physiotherapy New Zealand, the physiotherapy schools in Aotearoa New Zealand and to the Physiotherapy Board of New Zealand.

Pacific Health Summer Studentship

Mr Duncan Drysdale, University of Otago
Developing a supported playgroup for children of Pacific families
2 months, $5,000
This project aims to promote development and maximise beneficial childhood experiences/support for the Pacific community by identifying key components of the playgroup experience that are culturally important to Pacific peoples through qualitative interviews with family members of the Pacific Trust Otago playgroup.

Miss Paige Enoka, University of Otago
Physical activity participation for Pacific people
2 months, $5,000
Increasing physical activity is one proven way of preventing and managing a long-term condition. It is known that health interventions are more effective when they are tailored to meet the cultural needs of people and their communities. The aim of this research project is to find out what enables Pacific people to engage in physical activity and what tends to prevent Pacific people from being physically active.

Ms Ileana Lameta, University of Otago
Self-management of Long-Term Conditions for Pacific people
2 months, $5,000
Self-management is a time-consuming, continuous challenge, with little research specific to Pacific people. This project will explore the key cultural elements that assist Pacific people in managing long-term health conditions.

Miss Urata Sofai, University of Otago
Mental Health and Wellbeing of the Pacific Non-Regulated Health Workforce
3 months, $5,000
This is a qualitative study on the Mental Health and Well-being of the Pacific Non-Regulated Health Workforce. This refers to health workers who are not regulated by a governing body or organisation. There is limited research available on the Pacific non-regulated workforce and so we aim to provide some initial information on them as well as inquire into their health and well-being and the services or lack thereof that are accessible to them.

For more information, contact:

Ellie Rowley
Communications Adviser
External Engagement Division
University of Otago
Tel +64 3 479 8200
Mob +64 21 278 8200

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