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Clocktower.Thursday 3 September 2015 9:13am

Five innovative University of Otago-led research programmes are being backed with $5.7M in new science investment funding announced by the Government today.

The new Otago programmes are being supported through the Hazards & Infrastructure Research, High-Value Manufacturing & Services Research, and Smart Ideas funds administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment. They are part of a pool of 48 new science research programmes awarded to 15 different research organisations with total investment of $96.5 million.

Otago's programmes involve:

  • Identifying compounds for selective pesticides that do not harm bees
  • Developing an ultrasonic dental diagnostic device to allow early treatment of gum disease
  • Reducing possible damage to New Zealand's power grid by extremely large geomagnetic storms
  • Developing simple, automated genetic material extraction for point-of-care diagnostics
  • Developing non-invasive sensors to measure brain oxygen levels in patients

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says the Otago researchers' success in the Ministry's latest science investment round is very pleasing.

“These researchers have put forward excellent and innovative proposals that promise to benefit important aspects of New Zealand's environment, economy, health and infrastructure,” Professor Blaikie says.

Through the submission process, 157 full proposals were received. The successful proposals were selected by the Science Board, an independent statutory Board, following robust review by independent experts. The new research contracts will commence on 1 October 2015, for periods of two, three and four years.

For more information, please contact:

Professor Richard Blaikie
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise)
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 8513

Otago's 2015 Science Investment Fund projects

(Only Principal Investigators are listed and amounts are GST exclusive)

Selective Insecticides - Phase 2

$1,000,000 over 2 years
Science Leader: Associate Professor Peter Dearden (Biochemistry)

Modern primary production requires both insecticides, to protect crops and stored food, and insects, for pollination and ecosystem services. To break the conflict between the use of insecticides and their damaging effects on beneficial insects, we have developed a screening assay to identify potential bee-friendly insecticides. Here we propose to use this assay to identify and test novel compounds that kill pests and leave our bees alone thus providing the crop protection needed for economic production, while supporting beneficial insects. We also propose to reanalyse the new body of genomic information to find new pathways to target pests, while leaving beneficial insects untouched. A multi-pronged, continuous strategy is important to prevent rapid emergence of resistance to sole compound (over)use.


Associate Professor Peter Dearden

UltraD3: Ultrasonic Dental Diagnostic Device

$1,199,869 over 3 years
Science Leader: Professor Warwick Duncan (Oral Sciences)

A combined team from University of Otago School of Dentistry and Callaghan Innovation aims to develop a device that will improve the early diagnosis of gum disease around teeth and around titanium dental implants. Earlier intervention for gum problems will reduce both the discomfort and the cost of late-stage surgical treatment for these conditions. The team has world-leading capabilities in dental research, ultrasonics, electronics and materials science. The UltraD3 employs miniaturised high frequency transducers and imaging systems and applies these to the clinical problem of diagnosing early inflammation around teeth and dental implants.


Professor Warwick Duncan

Mr Paul Harris, Callaghan Innovation

Solar Tsunamis: Mitigating Emerging Risks to New Zealand's Electrical Network

$1,467,000 over 3 years
Science Leader: Professor Craig Rodger

Solar Tsunamis, or Āniwhaniwha Kōmaru, are massive clouds of plasma which explode from the Sun into space. If these clouds are Earth-directed, they can trigger temporary disturbances to the large-scale magnetic field of the Earth called "geomagnetic storms". Basic high school Physics tells us that changing magnetic fields will induce currents in conductors, like wires. These storms lead to geomagnetic induced currents (GIC) in electrical transmission networks and have damaged transformers and disrupted electrical supply on vast scales affecting millions of people over thousands of kilometres. A comparatively modest storm in November 2001 destroyed a transformer in New Zealand, and Transpower now regularly monitors GICs in its network and has protocols in place for similar-sized storms.

The project focuses on reducing the possible damage from extremely large geomagnetic storms. The US National Academy of Sciences has warned that extreme geomagnetic storms could produce widespread power blackouts with permanent damage to 10+% of the primary transformers that are the backbone of the U.S. electric grid. Such an extreme storm would have global implications, damaging electrical networks across the world. In 2011 the United Kingdom Government added such storms to its National Risk Register. They are recognised as one of the highest priority natural hazards due to their potentially significant impact on critical national infrastructure.

In this proposal we will examine the risk posed to New Zealand's electrical transmission network from extreme geomagnetic storms. Supported by Transpower New Zealand Limited, we will analyse their current and historical GIC monitoring data to better understand the space-derived drivers causing GIC in the New Zealand electrical network. This will assist Transpower in developing their real-time GIC security policy to deal with such extreme events, by linking it to potentially predictable space weather activity. Our research will help mitigate the potential impact on the New Zealand electrical network of such extreme solar tsunami events.

We will construct a physics-based model of how GIC are produced in the New Zealand network by storms in space. This model will be validated using the Transpower historical data, along with high-resolution in-field measurements conducted during this project. We will use the validated model to determine what will happen to the New Zealand network during extreme geomagnetic storms, allowing Transpower and other agencies such as Civil Defence and emergency services to plan future mitigation strategies. We will also undertake an outreach component to engage the wider public in the science of space weather using GIC's association with spectacular aurora formations.

Our team includes the Space Physics group from Otago University, the geomagnetism research group from Victoria University, supported by Space Weather experts from the British Geological Survey and the British Antarctic Survey. The project is led by Professor Craig Rodger (University of Otago) and Malcolm Ingham (Victoria University of Wellington).


Professor Craig Rodger

Simple, automated nucleic acid extraction for point-of-care diagnostics

$999,999 over 2 years
Science Leader: Dr Jo-Ann Stanton (Anatomy)

Point-of-care diagnostics that rely on complex molecular tests have the potential to revolutionize healthcare. Currently complex tests, such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), are performed in centralised laboratories. Clinical samples are transported to these laboratories where they are queued for testing. This delays the notification of results to healthcare professionals and to the patient, typically requiring a return visit before appropriate treatment can commence. This carries with it a risk of loss of the patient to follow up, particularly in low-resource settings. If health professionals are able to test patients on site and determine the correct course of treatment immediately at the first visit (i.e. at the point-of-care), there is no longer a risk of loss to follow up and health outcomes are greatly improved.

It is now possible to perform complex molecular tests at the point-of-care. New technologies are available, like the Freedom4 PCR device from Ubiquitome Ltd, that deliver high-quality results in the field. However, sample preparation, that is purification of nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) from the patient tissue, is challenging. This step is critical for high quality diagnostic data to be produced from PCR devices in non-laboratory settings.

PCR works by detecting specific sequences of DNA. Techniques for purifying nucleic acid are complex and not easily performed outside of a laboratory. This is a constraint for the use of portable PCR devices for point-of-care diagnosis, restricting their use to highly trained specialists. This is a serious barrier that limits the potential of point-of-care diagnostics.

Our Smart Idea is designed to overcome this barrier. We have conceived a small battery powered device that collects a sample, purifies the nucleic acid and delivers it to the point-of-care device for testing. Our Smart Idea consists of only two parts: a disposable Extractor Tube that contains all of the reaction components for nucleic acid purification, and an automated Nucleic Acid Extraction Device that incubates the sample preparation mix and delivers the purified nucleic acid to a collection vessel. The automated Nucleic Acid Extraction Device has no moving parts and reduces potential cross contamination of samples making it robust and very simple to use.

Our Smart Idea has the potential for significant benefits for New Zealand. The demand for point-of-care diagnostics for infectious disease is a rapidly growing market, with an estimated value of $1.8 billion dollars by 2017. Our Smart Idea could be used by all point-of-care devices that use nucleic acid, providing us a substantial potential market for the invention. We can further exploit this by developing a product and consumables stream that adds to this exciting economic opportunity for New Zealand. In addition, enabling effective point-of-care diagnostics will have a flow on effect by reducing healthcare costs through early and appropriate treatment interventions and enabling greater participation in screening programmes, like HPV screening for cancer prevention, in remote and low-resource settings.

Our Smart Idea reaches beyond healthcare into all sectors of agriculture, environmental monitoring, border security, and disease surveillance, to name a few. Once it is possible to simply and reliably purify nucleic acid from samples in-field and with limited operator skills, and point-of-care complex diagnostics will become a much more accessible and cost-effective reality.


Dr Jo-Ann Stanton

Portable technology for brain monitoring

$1,000,000 over 2 years
Science Leader: Dr Shieak Tzeng (Surgery and Anaesthesia, Wellington)

The brain is exquisitely sensitive to the effects of oxygen starvation, and even brief periods of brain hypoxia can lead to death or permanent disability. The direct and indirect costs of hypoxic brain injury due to stroke and brain trauma are estimated to exceed $700 million by 2015. But when brain oxygenation is compromised, clinicians almost always rely on crude proxy measures such as blood pressure or peripheral oxygen levels to guide therapeutic interventions.

Our interdisciplinary team of physiologists, physicists, biomedical engineers, and critical care clinicians propose a radically different solution to these problems. We will combine technological innovation, bench top simulation, and preclinical modelling to develop portable sensors that can monitor the brain metabolism.

Our proposed technology will enable clinicians to target treatments, and reduce the high rates of morbidity and mortality associated with conditions like stroke and brain trauma. It would also be non-invasive, affordable, and portable. As recovery of brain tissue is time-critical, this is especially relevant to regional or rural hospitals serving our most disadvantaged populations.


Dr Shieak Tzeng

A list of Otago experts available for media comment is available elsewhere on this website.

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