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Five research staff from the University of Otago. Christchurch have been awarded prestigious Canterbury Medical Research Foundation (CMRF) Grants, to the tune of half a million dollars in total.

Three of the five, Dr Christoph Goebl, Dr Martina Paumann-Page and Dr Annika Seddon, are cancer researchers with the Centre for Free Radical Research Group (CFRR) within the Department of Pathology and Biomedical Science. Also successful are Dr Michael Maze, a clinical researcher in infectious diseases from the Department of Medicine, and Dr Ruqayya Sulaiman-Hill, a March 15 Project principal investigator from within the Department of Psychological Medicine.

CMRF Director Melissa Haberfield says the Foundation is delighted to financially support the campus’s emerging health researchers as they establish their careers in Canterbury.

“The calibre of Major Project Grant applications is exceptionally high every year and we receive many more than we can award. The successful researchers for the 2022 grants round represent some of the brightest talent in our region and will be undertaking world class research projects.”

CFRR Principal Investigator Dr Goebl has been awarded $110,000 for his research project exploring novel methods for cancer diagnosis and treatment prediction.

“I feel very fortunate to receive this important CMRF project grant, which will help support our team to significantly advance our ongoing cancer research work.

“We recently discovered that a specific cancer-preventing protein called p16 can form amyloid structures that stop the protein from working. Amyloids of other proteins contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but this is the first time amyloids have been implicated in cancer. We now want to develop new methods to measure p16 amyloids in cancer biopsies, and ultimately to determine if this helps with diagnosis and selection of the most appropriate treatments for patients.”

Fellow CFRR cancer researcher Dr Paumann-Page has also been awarded $110,000 for her project investigating the new role for peroxidasin in modulating the invasive potential of cancer cells.

She says the complex process of invasion is not entirely understood, and new strategies to reduce the spread of cancer cells are needed.

“High levels of the enzyme peroxidasin have been shown to promote cancer cell invasion. We have previously shown that peroxidasin is highly elevated in invasive metastatic melanoma and invasive breast cancer cells. Moreover, we have discovered that inhibition of peroxidasin reduces invasion in these cells. However, we do not know how peroxidasin is working. Identifying underlying molecular mechanisms may provide insights into novel therapeutic approaches.”

This CMRF grant is the first awarded to new CFRR postdoctoral fellow Dr Seddon.

“This is a monumental step in my research career and I feel very privileged to have been selected, to drive my own project and biomedical research interests and begin to establish myself as an independent researcher.”

Dr Seddon’s research will focus on how interactions between the gut microbiome and immune cells combine to influence the progression of colorectal cancer. She says the ultimate goal of this work is to provide a basis for the development of new therapeutic agents to combat this devastating disease.

“Rates of colorectal cancer are very high in Aotearoa New Zealand, with mounting evidence suggesting gut bacteria play a role. Colorectal tumours provide an environment where chlorine bleach from immune cells can react with amines produced by gut bacteria to make chloramines. We will investigate the ability of chloramines to alter DNA methylation in colorectal cells, and if some bacteria stimulate more chlorine production than others.”

Infectious disease and respiratory physician Dr Michael Maze from University of Otago, Christchurch’s Department of Medicine has been awarded $73,586 for his translational research into pleural infection – a common and severe condition in which fluids build up between the lungs and the chest due to a bacterial infection.

“Identifying the bacteria which causes pleural infections is critical for choosing the correct antibiotics to treat it with. Currently, by trying to culture bacteria from the lung fluid, doctors only identify the responsible bacteria in 60 per cent of cases. We suspect bacteria that are difficult to grow, such as Legionella - the cause of Legionnaires disease - might be responsible. In Canterbury, Legionnaires disease is common – with among the highest rates in the world. We think it could also be a common cause of pleural infection. “

Dr Maze says his team aims to find the responsible bacteria by looking for their DNA in the fluid using PCR testing, to help guide doctors’ antibiotic choices and help patients recover. The study will also follow patients for twelve months after their pleural infection diagnosis to better understand how long it takes to recover from it.

Research Fellow Dr Ruqayya Sulaiman-Hill from the Department of Psychological Medicine says she’s surprised and delighted to receive her $109,000 CMRF Grant to help advance her work on the psychological impact of traumatic events.

Dr Sulaiman-Hill is a co-Principal investigator on the CMRF and Health Research Council-funded March 15 Project, assessing the impacts of the March 15 terrorist attacks on the Christchurch Muslim community.

“This additional funding will allow us to conduct research to investigate the challenges for people who’ve both been part of the traumatised community and working to support others in the community. We will examine these “dual relationship” challenges, looking at some of the positives and negatives for and from this work. We hope the findings will contribute to a better understanding of some of these issues, which are likely to become more significant as culturally responsive services are developed and other world views are acknowledged.”

For more information, please contact:

Lorelei Mason
Communications Adviser, Media Engagement
University of Otago, Christchurch
Mob +64 21 279 2203

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