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Otago scientists awarded NZ$38.5 million in largest national research grants

Tuesday 17 September 2019 10:28am

University of Otago scientists have been awarded almost NZ$38.5 million from the Government’s Endeavour Fund to tackle major issues from climate change to antimicrobial resistance.

Three research programmes which have potential to positively transform New Zealand’s future in areas of both human and animal health have received NZ$29.5 million, from the fund administered by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment; while a further nine “Smart Ideas” projects which catalyse and test promising innovative research ideas with high potential for benefits have received NZ$9 million.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announced this morning the Government is investing NZ$241 million in 71 research projects to tackle long-term issues like increasing sources of renewable energy, growing knowledge-intensive industries and tackling New Zealand’s social issues.

Vernon Ward Image
Professor Vernon Ward

Dean of the School of Biomedical Sciences, Professor Vernon Ward, is leading the ‘New Frontiers in Antiviral Development’ project, awarded NZ$13,525,451 over five years to develop antiviral agents.

Professor Ward says there is a global burden and impact from viral disease and his team has discovered lead compounds that target new aspects of viruses not targeted previously. Together with other national collaborators from Victoria University, the University of Auckland, ESR, GlycoSyn and international partners, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (US) and the University of Southampton (UK), the team will look to develop new classes of antivirals.

“This project is very exciting as it brings a wide range of researchers together including virologists, cellular and molecular biologists, medicial chemists and industry partners,” Professor Ward explains.

“By working together we will be able to develop these new agents and targets for treatment of viral diseases.”

Merata Kawharu Image
Professor Merata Kawharu

Professor Merata Kawharu (Ngāti Whatua, Ngāpuhi) from the Centre for Sustainability, has been awarded NZ$7,248,016 over five years for an initiative aimed at empowering Māori communities to respond to climate change.

This innovative research pioneers the development of marae-based and marae-led platforms and processes to help reduce carbon emissions in the community.

Professor Kawharu explains the project will enable Māori communities to identify the issues and build from a community and culture values perspective to find solutions that help to lower carbon emissions that are cost-effective and help to restore the health of landscapes and communities.

“For example, we may build on successful projects like zero waste marae and look to greenhouse gas mitigation at ancestral landscape levels, considering alternative non-synthetic fertiliser and other non-intensified farm practices; then looking at household energy options that are cost-effective and also asking what local energy sources can be harnessed long term.”

Greg Cook Image
Professor Greg Cook

Amid a perfect storm brewing internationally around the use of antibiotics in animals, Microbiologist Professor Greg Cook, together with Research fellow Dr Scott Ferguson, are leading a research project aiming to develop new antimicrobials.

By 2022, the European Parliament will ban the use of antibiotics important for human medicine in animals. Professor Cook explains that as antimicrobial resistance continues to rise and antimicrobial demand grows, the agricultural sector is faced with the perfect storm – needing to keep animals healthy despite challenges of ever-increasing production and intensification, yet having fewer antimicrobial agents available.

The project, which receives NZ$8,709,022 over five years, aims to develop novel precision antimicrobials, which are narrow spectrum, killing the target pathogen without any harm to animals or good bacteria.

“We want to fundamentally transform the way animal infections are treated around the world, with innovative, first in class technology, with the aim of creating a New Zealand-based animal therapeutic research and development sector that employs people with a wide variety of skills and expertise to bring products to market.”

University of Otago research leader Professor Richard Blaikie says he is exceptionally pleased to see these results in the largest national contestable research fund.

“Endeavour Fund research needs to be both transformative and highly connected to end users, which are both attributes we value strongly at Otago.

“The strength of kaupapa Māori research at Otago is also evident in these results, with a programme focused on climate change adaption and projects looking at marine-environment remediation both intimately engaged with the hapu and iwi that have the most to gain from the research.”

Successful “Smart Ideas” projects are:

‘Diagnosis by light: An endoscopic probe for biopsy-free diagnosis of gastrointestinal diseases’
Dr Sara Miller, Department of Chemistry, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Cultivating resilient marine forests to rebuild productive coastal ecosystems’
Associate Professor Chris Hepburn, Department of Marine Science, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Enabling possum fertility control and eradication’
Dr Tim Hore, Department of Anatomy, NZ$999,969, 3 years

‘Modelling the cracks, chills and feedbacks that will control Auckland’s next eruption’
Professor James White, Department of Geology, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Generating non-heading ryegrass’
Associate Professor Richard Macknight, Department of Biochemistry, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Computational platform for phylogenetic analysis of somatic evolution’
Dr Alex Gavryushkin, Department of Computer Science, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Phage-inspired custom antimicrobials to target bacterial pathogens’
Associate Professor Peter Fineran, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Quantifying environmental resources through high-resolution, automated, satellite mapping of landscape change’
Dr Pascal Sirguey, School of Surveying, NZ$999,999, 3 years

‘Contact-free sensing of high voltages using a laser electrometer’
Dr Amita Deb, Department of Physics, NZ$999,999, 3 years

For further information, contact:

Professor Vernon Ward,
Dean, School of Biomedical Sciences
Tel +64 3 479 5134

Professor Merata Kawharu
Centre of Sustainability
Tel +64 3 479 8294

Professor Greg Cook,
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
Tel +64 3 479 7722

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
Tel +64 3 479 9065
Mob +64 21 279 9065