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Divya Adhia, Indranil Basak, Aniruddha Chatterjee, Silke Neumann collage image

Otago recipients of 2023 Sir Charles Hercus Fellowships, from left: Dr Divya Adhia, Dr Indranil Basak, Research Associate Professor Aniruddha Chatterjee, Dr Silke Neumann.

The Health Research Council has awarded 20 Otago researchers more than $3.5 million in Career Development Awards.

These awards help launch research careers, with funding for summer studentships and development grants as well as master’s and PhD scholarships. They also support and develop research leaders through advanced postdoctoral fellowships, including clinical research training fellowships, as well as research fellowships for frontline clinicians.

Otago staff and students will receive $3,586,604 among a total of more than $15 million awarded to 76 researchers nationally.

Four staff members have received the prestigious Sir Charles Hercus Fellowships.

Dr Silke Neumann and Research Associate Professor Aniruddha Chatterjee from the Department of Pathology, Dr Divya Adhia from the Department of Surgical Sciences and Dr Indranil Basak from the Department of Biochemistry each receive almost $600,000.

Dr Neumann’s research aims to develop new drugs for gastric and brain cancer and make these available to New Zealanders. It will validate a target that is associated with inflammation and cancer progression, she says.

“Cancer is a serious health issue in Aotearoa New Zealand that disproportionately affects Māori and Pacific peoples.

“While survival rates for most cancers are improving, hard-to-treat cancers including gastric and brain cancers are often detected late, have poorer prognoses and limited treatment options, highlighting the pressing need to develop treatments using novel targets for effective cancer therapy.”

To do this, she has assembled a strong multi-disciplinary team consisting of clinicians and key scientists to drive this innovation and facilitate translation of basic science into new medical therapies in an area of high unmet clinical need, she says.

“This fellowship is an amazing opportunity that will allow me to execute translational research in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Dr Basak’s research aims to chart the neuroprotective role of a Iong non-coding RNA (lncRNA) in Parkinson's disease and pave the path for future research towards developing and testing an early intervention to stop or slow down the disease.

Parkinson's disease is the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease globally and cases are expected to double in New Zealand over the next 20-30 years, making it crucial to identify early interventions, he says.

“The disease is characterised by the progressive death of a particular type of brain cells, called dopaminergic neurons, resulting in loss of normal motor function.”

However, the majority of dopaminergic neurons are dead when the disease is diagnosed, and researchers need to understand the molecular mechanisms behind the death of these neurons, he says.

“My research will investigate the potential of a regulatory RNA molecule, NL02, to rescue dying dopaminergic neurons using human brain cells derived from skin cells.”

Two staff members have received Clinical Research Training Fellowships worth about $260,000, while 14 staff and students received funding specifically for Māori or Pacific health research – the majority of which have a purpose of improving the quality of life for those populations and addressing the inequity gap in the health system.

University of Otago Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise Professor Richard Blaikie congratulates the recipients on their success.

“These Fellowships and Scholarships will support some amazing Otago students to complete research degrees in health-related areas, as well as allowing some exceptionally talented early-career researchers to accelerate their progress,” he says.

“In all cases the research projects have clear aims to provide knowledge to support improved health and wellbeing for people and communities in Aotearoa, the Pacific and the wider world.

“They support our strong profile as New Zealand’s leading health research provider and align to our aspirations under the University’s Vision 2040 strategic plan.”

General Career Development Awards

Sir Charles Hercus Fellowships

Dr Silke Neumann

Developing novel targets and drugs for cancer therapy in Aotearoa New Zealand

Cancer is a serious health issue in Aotearoa New Zealand that disproportionately affects Māori and Pacific people, who are often younger at the time of diagnosis and have poorer outcomes than non-Māori New Zealanders. The proposed research programme will investigate a novel target for cancer therapy, which improves survival in some cancers but worsens prognosis in others for reasons that are not well understood. Patient cancer tissue from all ethnicities in Aotearoa New Zealand will be examined to confirm the suitability of this target for drug intervention. Gene tagging technology will determine the cellular localisation of these complexes and investigate the mechanism underlying the contrasting effects in different cancers. Clinically-used drugs will be screened for activity against the target and novel drugs developed. Overall, this research programme has the potential to significantly improve cancer outcomes for all New Zealanders, especially for those with hard-to-treat cancers.

Dr Divya Adhia

Novel triple network neuromodulation treatment for chronic low back pain

Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is a leading cause of disability worldwide, associated with huge economic costs. Current available treatments, demonstrate small effect sizes, thus warranting the need for new innovative therapies. In individuals with CLBP, the researchers have demonstrated abnormal functional connectivity in the three cardinal brain networks that are responsible for pain modulation, emotional and sensory components of pain experience. Moreover, these altered brain network connectivity are critical for development and maintenance of chronic pain, and are associated with clinical and psychological outcomes. Targeting these three cardinal brain networks may produce clinical benefits. The proposed research will evaluate the efficacy of a novel non-invasive neuromodulation paradigm, a high definition transcranial infraslow gray noise stimulation (HD-tIGNS) technique, targeting the triple brain networks simultaneously in its anti-correlated pattern, for modulating abnormal functional connectivity in people with CLBP. Feasibility, acceptability, and cost-effectiveness of a home-based prototype neuromodulation intervention will also be tested.

Dr Indranil Basak

Charting the neuroprotective role of a IncRNA in Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease is the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease globally. The disease is characterised by the progressive death of a particular type of brain cells, called dopaminergic neurons, resulting in loss of normal motor function. The majority of dopaminergic neurons are dead when the disease is diagnosed. With a predicted doubling of Parkinson's disease cases in Aotearoa over the next 20-30 years, it is crucial to identify early interventions to stop the development and progression of Parkinson's disease. The proposed research will investigate the potential of a multi-functional neuronal RNA molecule, NL02, to rescue dying dopaminergic neurons using human brain cells derived from skin cells. By establishing this robust research programme, the fellowship will support the researcher’s goal to develop an independent research career, develop cutting-edge methodologies, foster collaborations, and ultimately develop new interventional pathways that could halt the disease progression and transform the lives of individuals affected by Parkinson's disease.

Research Associate Professor Aniruddha Chatterjee

Targeting the epigenetic signature of drug resistance in cancer

Molecularly targeted therapies have significantly improved survival for lung cancer patients, but responses are short-lived due to resistance. Pre-existing genetic mutations are no longer considered solely responsible for this phenomenon. Instead, the research team and others’ work show that an altered epigenetic state could be critically involved in treatment evasion. However, an epigenetic signature responsible for drug resistance has not been identified. Identifying and targeting drug-resistant tumour cells can potentially revolutionise cancer therapy. This fellowship work will combine state-of-the art whole-genome scale analyses to identify an epigenetic signature of drug resistance. Further, this research aims to develop and apply a novel high-throughput epigenomic editing tool to drug resistance to provide causal evidence of an epigenetic program driving drug resistance. The researcher’s long-term vision is to develop a diverse and leading translational epigenetic research program in Aotearoa to discover new epigenetic markers, therapy and mechanism of cancer cell function to improve patient benefits and outcomes.

Clinical Research Training Fellowships

Gillian Watson

Physiotherapists’ perspective of retention within Te Whatu Ora

This research seeks to document the intrinsic drivers that influence retention using a bottom-up approach, with the largest Allied Health profession working within Te Whatu Ora, and provide evidence that can best inform the national Health Workforce Strategy. Currently the physiotherapy workforce is deemed to be at a critical level, with workforce retention identified as contributing to the issue. With the momentum of health service reform and the focus on health workforce crisis, now is the opportunity act and undertake high quality research that is pertinent to New Zealand’s unique circumstances and population.

Dr Patrick Campbell

Enhancing the effectiveness and safety of leprosy control in Kiribati

Kiribati is an Island country in the central Pacific Ocean which has one of the highest rates of leprosy in the world. For over two decades, the Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MH&MS) has collaborated with the Pacific Leprosy Foundation (PLF) to support the National Leprosy Program’s (NLP) leprosy control work in Kiribati. More recently a largescale collaborative research project has been commenced which aims to screen the entire population (~60,000) of South Tarawa for both leprosy and tuberculosis. The aim of the proposed research is to enhance the effectiveness and safety of leprosy control in Kiribati through expansion and analysis of clinical, molecular and
programmatic surveillance data as well as prevalence surveys of dapsone hypersensitivity genotypes and baseline resistance to first line antimicrobials used in the treatment of leprosy.

Māori Health Research Career Development Awards

Māori Health Summer Studentships – $7500

Kaiah Bloor

Chemical synthesis of novel antimicrobial compounds

In response to the urgent need of treatment against multi drug resistant pathogens, this summer studentship research opportunity focuses on the chemical synthesis of hit analogues for antimicrobial and biofilm inhibition compounds. This research will contribute to developing alternative treatment options for infection, which is particularly relevant to Māori health. Māori are disproportionally represented in the New Zealand healthcare system compared to non-Māori, making this research vital to achieve equitable health outcomes for Māori. As an undergraduate Māori student, the researcher deeply values the significance of addressing these unique health challenges faced by Māori. The researcher aspires to encourage younger generations of both Māori and non-Māori by sharing the progress of their research and demonstrating the potential impact its results may have in this 'antibiotic crisis'.

Tori-Lee Brown

Māori experiences and perceptions of self-regulatory treatments for chronic pain

Knee Osteoarthritis (OA) is a health condition resulting in disability and reduced quality of life. It is a highly prevalent musculoskeletal health condition among Māori. Chronic pain associated with knee OA is linked to the hypersensitivity of the central nervous system resulting in higher pain experience in people with knee OA. Therefore, treatment targeting the nervous system may be a helpful intervention to reduce pain in knee OA. Any new interventions developed and tested should be appropriate culturally and acceptable for Māori, thereby reducing barriers and health inequalities between Māori and non-Māori. This summer research project explores Māori experiences and perceptions of self-regulatory interventions such as Mindfulness Meditation and Neurofeedback Training for improving health and well-being in people with knee OA. The qualitative findings will provide important information regarding minimising perceived difficulties and barriers and improving acceptability and treatment adherence in the full trial.

Eilish Dalley

Systemic Bias – Eating Disorder Awareness in Indigenous Communities

This project will use the research findings from Tangata Kōmuramura: Māori Experiences of Eating Disorders project, to develop resources that should help tangata whaiora, their whānau, and clinicians in the identification and management of eating disorders for Māori. The research was the first of its kind to explore: the enablers/barriers to accessing diagnoses and treatment; explanatory factors, experiences of treatment, and what helps with recovery from the perspective of Māori with eating disorders, and their whānau. It is envisaged that the seminal findings could develop resources that support tangata whaiora with eating disorders, their whānau, and clinicians.

Tira McLachlan

Investigating a novel gene causing Meier-Gorlin syndrome

This summer studentship project investigates an uncommon type of microcephalic primordial dwarfism known as Meier-Gorlin syndrome. Clinically, this syndrome expresses distinct facial features, short stature, reduced head size and many other phenotypical symptoms. Genes associated with this autosomal recessive condition are involved in DNA replication. This is a very significant cellular process that ensures sufficient production of two identical DNA copies. The researchers have found variants within a critical gene known as DONSON that cause MGS. This protein functions within replication to ensure that stability is maintained throughout the process's progression. They hypothesise that these DONSON variants are affecting the way the protein typically functions. Thus, they are eager to investigate the protein-protein interactions through a range of precipitation and identification techniques. This will allow them to determine how these DONSON variants cause Meier-Gorlin and other microcephalic, short stature, limb abnormalities syndromes.

Nasya Thompson

An Exploration of Knowledge Exchange between Rongoā and Medical Practitioners

The World Health Organization recognises the value of integrating traditional medicine, like Māori healing (Rongoā Māori), into Western healthcare systems. However, in New Zealand, Rongoā Māori and mainstream healthcare often function independently, limiting potential benefits of their collaboration. There is concern that such integration could risk cultural misappropriation, and a level of distrust exists between both sets of practitioners. The potential for improved health outcomes, especially for Māori individuals who currently show lower rates of participation and satisfaction in mainstream healthcare, suggests a need for improved understanding and collaboration. This study aims to foster mutual respect and collaboration between Rongoā Māori and Western medicine by exploring the perspectives of both sets of practitioners. Using semi-structured interviews, the study will seek to understand what each group believes the other should know about their respective practices. The insights will potentially enhance health outcomes for the Māori community.

Jessica Watson

Cardiac rehabilitation delivery for Māori and other indigenous populations

Cardiac rehabilitation leads to better health-related outcomes for people with cardiovascular disease. However, attendance at such programmes are low due to many barriers, including distance. Māori and other indigenous populations are known to be disproportionately impacted by the burden of cardiovascular disease. Ensuring that cardiac rehabilitation programmes are designed to meet the needs of disproportionately burdened populations, and are accessible to those living rurally, may increase engagement with cardiac rehabilitation for these populations. The aim of this project is to review the literature for the preferences of people living rurally, and Māori and other indigenous populations for the design and delivery of home and community-based cardiac rehabilitation. A scoping review of cardiac rehabilitation guidelines from several countries impacted by colonisation will also be undertaken to explore if and how these guidelines strive for equity for rural and indigenous populations through recommendations for the design and delivery of cardiac rehabilitation.

James Wilson

Kaupapa Māori Research approach to assessing biomechanics of Mau Rākau

Māori movement practices, such as mau rākau, have been used traditionally by Māori as forms of exercise, rehabilitation and agility training. Mau rākau is a martial art form which may be useful in physiotherapy, similar to the martial art form, Tai Chi, adopted by physiotherapists in falls prevention. The proposed research is part of a wider project exploring biomechanical analysis describing mau rākau movement. This project will qualitatively ask the experiences of kaumatua performing mau rākau and slowed mau rākau and experiences of participating in biomechanical research.

Māori Health Masters Scholarship

Sheree Tikao-Harkess

Envisioning a Kaupapa Māori approach to post-injury health service delivery

The whakapapa of our health system is based on a westernized world view, an approach that has failed Māori. Māori experience less access to injury and rehabilitation services including primary health care, hospital care, and accident and disability support services such as ACC. This study will use a Kaupapa Māori approach to prioritise the whakaaro and mātauraka of Māori post musculoskeletal injury.

Māori Health PhD Scholarship

Laura Gemmell

Te toi o te aitanga: A kaupapa Māori analysis of the New Zealand Sexual Health Strategy

Arianna Nisa-Waller

Pīkau i te Anamata: Re-imagining Postpartum Care in Aotearoa

This PhD study is underpinned by a kaupapa Māori narrative epistemological approach working with whānau Māori to encourage the development and sharing of whānau narratives that usher in the old practice and metaphorical traditions of pīkau (baby wearing or carrying). This framework will be used to explore the collective postnatal and parenting journeys for whānau Māori living in the Otago region. This study also strives to explore the domains of mātuatanga or parenthood and the ways whānau Māori define parenthood from their experiences navigating various health care services in the community. The research team takes its lead from international research on the postpartum phase but the researcher’s intention is for whānau to be self-determining of the language they would like to use that place them in their roles as kaihāpai (advocates), kaimanaaki (nurturers) and mātua (parental figures) within their whānau context.

Māori Health Clinical Training Fellowship

Dr Hana Royal

Nitrate in drinking water and congenital anomalies: a retrospective cohort study

This research will investigate the association between nitrate in drinking water and congenital anomalies. It will conduct a retrospective cohort study using a national cohort of births from 2009–2021 (~700,000) to assess the impact of prenatal exposure to nitrate in drinking water on congenital anomalies. The cohort will be identified using the Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) which will provide individual-level data on key confounders. Nitrate exposure via drinking water will be assessed through collation of testing results and spatial data on water supply boundaries from registered water supplies. The project has a specific focus on water sources in the Ngāi Tahu Takiwā and includes primarily testing of key drinking water sites (e.g. Ngāi Tahu marae).

Māori Health Development Grant

Te-Rina King-Hudson

Co-design of a kaupapa Māori research project on ageing biomarkers

We are living longer but not necessarily healthier lives. This has placed increasing burdens on individuals and society. Ageing biomarkers are emerging as promising tools for early risk screening of age-related disease, and for developing/monitoring interventions for healthy ageing. To uphold te Tiriti-obligations, future ageing marker research in Aotearoa must be representative and responsive to Māori. With this developmental grant, the research team will co-design a full kaupapa Māori research project proposal focused on the use of emerging ageing markers in Aotearoa New Zealand. The subsequent full proposal will inform development of a framework for understanding and promoting equitable use of ageing marker data.

Pacific Health Research Career Development Awards

Pacific Health Summer Studentship – $7,500

Beatrice Hessell

Managing for Pacific family violence within the workplace

People spend a significant amount of time within the workplace, which means that workplaces should aim to support them for greater success. One such support network is supporting those experiencing family violence. As Pacific peoples are 44 per cent more likely to experience physical or psychological family violence compared to Aotearoa New Zealand Europeans, there is the need for development of strategies to look after Pacific staff who may suffer from these scenarios. The aim of this research is to explore existing support networks for those who experience family violence, and align such with Pacific values to create recommendations for the workplace.

Pacific Health Masters Scholarship

Maria Satele

A Sāmoan perspective on the generational shift of violence in the home

The researcher is a Sāmoan student at the University of Otago currently enrolled in the Clinical Psychology programme and Master of Science programme. Their work experience is in the family violence sector through work at Corrections delivering rehabilitation programmes to reduce reoffending and recently at a Pacific provider leading their family violence prevention programme. This has greatly influenced their passion to research pacific family violence. They aim to interview and gather information from Sāmoan families regarding what they believe is contributing to the shift in family violence attitudes within Pacific communities. Often Pacific family violence programmes, strategies and interventions are deficit focused. The researcher hopes to focus on protective factors that Sāmoan families themselves are nurturing and building to mitigate violence in the home. Decreasing family violence statistics can lower economic and psychological costs and ethnic specific strategies can improve support provided to marginalised and minority communities.

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