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Innovative Otago health research gains funding

Monday 12 May 2014 11:16am

Four University of Otago researchers have gained a total of around $550,000 to support their innovative studies in the latest funding announcement by the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).

Two of the three 2014 HRC Explorer Grants have been awarded to Professor Greg Cook (Microbiology & Immunology) and Associate Professor John Reynolds (Anatomy) for projects aiming to overcome antibiotic resistance and revolutionise treatment of Parkinson’s disease, respectively.

Explorer grants are intended to advance ideas considered to be transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact.

Professor Julian Crane (Medicine, Wellington) and Associate Professor Bob Hancox (Preventive and Social Medicine) gained HRC Feasibility Studies Awards to glean critical practical information needed for their investigations to progress towards fundable projects.

Professor Crane is studying the potential of a seaweed extract called Carrageenan to be topically used in the nose to prevent the common cold, while Associate Professor Hancox is focusing on determining whether beta-blockers may actually be a safe and effective treatment for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Professor Cook’s Explorer grant will support him to develop novel antibiotics that aim to transform the way we treat bacterial infections and combat multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released its first global report on antibiotic resistance, revealing it as a serious, worldwide threat to public health.

In contrast to current antibiotic targets such as the cell wall, and protein and DNA synthesis, Professor Cook’s team have developed new antibiotics that target the part of all living cells that produce energy. These new antibiotics or ‘metabiotics’, so-called because they target a metabolic process, will help the medical community keep pace with the growing problem of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Professor John Reynolds will use his Explorer Grant to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new drug delivery system that he and his team have designed for restoring brain function in patients with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

The system mimics normal neuro-chemical signalling in the brain. The researchers aim to reinstate the missing dopamine signal in Parkinson’s disease (PD) by activating the release of dopamine-like drugs from biological carriers in targeted brain areas at natural timing. They aim to restore movement in a PD model without the debilitating side effects associated with current dopamine-replacement therapies.

Grant information:

Professor Gregory Cook, University of Otago, Dunedin
Designing metabiotics to combat multidrug-resistant pathogens
24 months, $150,000
Tel 64 3 479 7722

The number of multidrug-resistant bacteria (MDR) is on the rise globally. This is further compounded by the lack of new antibiotics in our pipeline. In New Zealand, MDR incidence has been increasing dramatically over the past decade, particularly methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in our community. Importantly, Maori and Pacific people, and young children are most vulnerable. There is an urgent need to develop novel antibiotics with a new mode of action to combat MDR. In contrast to current available antibiotic targets, we target a bacterial NADH hydrogenase (validated drug target) to design high-affinity inibitors employing a computational drug screening method followed by biochemical, biophysical (protein crystallography) and mutagenesis validations. Our research goal is to transform the current MDR treatment process by shortening treatment period and reducing treatment cost by novel antibiotics with a new mode of action.

Associate Professor John Reynolds, University of Otago, Dunedin
Temporal and spatial control of drugs for improved treatment of brain disorders
18 months, $150,000
Tel 64 3479 5781

Our vision is to revolutionise treatment for neurological diseases, using a novel system we have designed to mimic normal neuro-chemical signalling in the brain. In this proof-of-concept study, we will reinstate the missing dopamine signal in Parkinson’s disease (PD) by activating the release of dopamine-like drugs from biological carriers in targeted brain areas at natural timing. We aim to restore movement in a PD model without the debilitating side effects associated with current dopamine-replacement therapies. L-DOPA, the mainstay in PD therapy, can induce abnormal movements (‘dyskinesias’) in many people within 3-5 years of commencing treatment. Our system holds the promise of lifelong PD treatment without these side effects, because dopamine replacement can be customised to mimic the natural dopamine signal in targeted brain areas.

Professor Julian Crane, University of Otago, Wellington
Prevention of the common cold with topical nasal Carrageenan
6 months, $98,614
Tel 64 4 918 5258

We propose a feasibility randomised control trial (RCT) to investigate the novel antiviral efficacy of topical nasal Iota Carageenan as a protective agent against the development of colds caused by rhinovirus. We hypothesise that the regular prophylactic administration of Iota Carageenan will reduce the incidence of symptomatic rhinovirus infections by blocking the binding of virus particles to nasal epithelial cells, as demonstrated in in-vitro studies. If successful, the feasibility study data will be used as the basis of a larger HRC application to examine whether Iota Carageenan can reduce rhinovirus infections amongst at risk asthmatic patients.

Professor Bob Hancox, University of Otago, Dunedin
Beta-blockers in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Feasibility of a randomised controlled trial
12 months, $149,956
Tel 64 3 479 8512

Beta-blocker treatment is known to improve survival from several cardiac diseases. Unfortunately, beta-blockers are usually avoided in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because of concerns that they may make airflow obstruction worse. Therefore patients with COPD are often deprived of the benefits of beta-blockers even though they have a very high risk of cardiac problems. Recent evidence suggests that beta-blockers may be safe and effective in lung disease but there have been no clinical studies to confirm this. This feasibility study will assess the safety and tolerability of metoprolol, a cardio-selective beta-blocker, in patients with exacerbations of COPD to determine whether a randomised controlled trial of beta-blockers should be conducted. The randomised study will provide a definitive answer on whether beta-blockers are safe and effective in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It has the potential to transform treatment of COPD and widen the indications for beta-blocker treatment.

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

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