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Liley Medal for ground-breaking asthma research

Monday 16 November 2020 2:48pm

Prof Mark Weatherall joint winner Liley Medal 2020 image
Professor Mark Weatherall

University of Otago researcher Professor Mark Weatherall has been jointly awarded the prestigious Health Research Council’s Liley Medal, awarded annually for outstanding contributions to the health and medical sciences.

Professor Weatherall from the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago, Wellington, and fellow researcher Mark Holliday from the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand were presented with their medals at a ceremony at Government House in Wellington this month.

They were honoured for their work as senior researchers on the Novel START New Zealand-led study which found that patients with mild asthma were much less likely to have a severe asthma attack if they used an inhaler containing a combination of both preventive and reliever medication as needed.

The clinical trial took place in 16 centres in New Zealand, Australia, Italy and the UK, with the findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May 2019.

HRC chief executive Professor Sunny Collings says the ground-breaking study had an almost immediate impact on guidelines for treating asthma in the clinic and has been referenced in both the international (Global Initiative for Asthma) and New Zealand asthma guidelines as key evidence for supporting a change to the standard treatment for mild asthma.

“The Global Initiative for Asthma guidelines have stated that these findings are the most significant paradigm change in asthma management over the past 30 years. This is an outstanding achievement by Professor Weatherall, Mr Holliday and the whole Novel START team and shows just what an impact investment in New Zealand health research can make.”

Professor Weatherall says most asthma attacks in New Zealand occur in patients with mild asthma, but there has been a lack of research into milder forms of the disease.

“Although people with severe asthma are more at risk of having an asthma attack, there are more people with mild asthma, so the health system consequences of finding effective treatments for this mild group are significant.

“It is also tricky to define severe, moderate and mild asthma. People labelled with mild or moderate asthma might have severe asthma if you follow them over a period of time, particularly because the disease fluctuates both seasonally and with other infections. So ‘mild’ asthma might not actually be that mild.”

The researchers plan to build on their work by looking at the use of a combination preventive and reliever inhaler for children as well as across all severities of asthma.

Professor Weatherall says it is very satisfying to have both the research and his personal role in it recognised.

“The award is also a tribute to the large team of co-investigators and the research participants involved in the project.”