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Otago scientists awarded major funding for innovative research

Tuesday, 19 September 2017 9:14pm

Biochemistry’s Professor Peter Dearden has been awarded two Endeavour grants: one Research Programme to improve New Zealand’s Bee stock and a Smart Ideas project to supercharge parasitoid wasps as biocontrol agents against pasture destroying weevils.

Nearly $18m in new funding was recently gained by Otago researchers under the Government’s Endeavour Fund, which looks for transformative research initiatives that have strong potential to improve a range of outcomes for New Zealand.

Otago’s seven successful proposals (five in the Smart Ideas category and two Research Programmes) were among 68 selected by the independent statutory Science Board following a review by independent experts.

The projects are set to benefit New Zealand environmentally, economically, and socially.

The new research contracts will begin on 1 October 2017.

Otago’s Smart ideas projects: (Only project leaders are listed)

Situated visualisation to enrich sports experience for on-site spectators
Dr Stefanie Zollmann (Computer Science)
Three years, $1,000,000

Over the last couple of years, we have seen many major advancements in sports broadcasting as well as in the interactivity in sports entertainment. Twenty-five years ago, the first real-time graphics animation of a sporting event was broadcast on television for the Americas Cup, driven by New Zealand innovation. Nowadays spectators can remotely follow the same event live in real-time using their mobile devices. However, spectators at live sporting events often miss out on this enriched content that is available to remote viewers through broadcast media or online.

The main idea of this project is to extend New Zealand’s lead in this field, visualising game statistics in a novel way on the mobile devices of on-site spectators to give them access to information about the sporting event. We will provide spectators with an enriched experience like the one you see in a television broadcast.

Our plan is to use new technologies like Augmented Reality to place event statistic such as scoring, penalties, team statistics, additional player information into the field of view of the spectators based on their location within the venue. While currently we focus more on delivering data to the spectators, this approach could be easily extended for supporting coaches and team analysts.

Our research will bring sports events closer to the audience, as well as bringing the spectators closer to the events and the teams. We will significantly advance New Zealand’s position in the technological field of Augmented Reality, a field that has recently gained a lot of commercial and public interest and attention.

Building Better Biocontrols by switching reproduction in parasitoid wasps
Professor Peter Dearden (Biochemistry)

Three years, $939,999

In this project we aim to supercharge two biocontrol agents to provide long-term, effective pasture pest control.

Two introduced weevils, the Argentine stem weevil and the clover root weevil, attack New Zealand pastures. These weevils are kept in control by two parasitoid wasps.

These wasps lay their eggs in the weevils, their larvae eat the weevils, and finally emerge, killing the weevil. These wasps save up to $550 million per annum in pasture damage, and reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizer needed to grow pasture in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, control by one of these wasps is failing as the weevil out-evolves the wasp that kills it.

In this project we aim to supercharge these biocontrol agents through artificial selection.

To do this we have to switch the wasps from their current asexual reproduction to sexual reproduction. This switch is possible because it appears that such switches have evolved frequently in these wasps. By switching to sexual reproduction, and selecting for improved efficiency against even resistant weevils, we hope to maintain the biocontrols we have, reducing the need for insecticides, genetically-modified methods of insect control, or the introduction of new biocontrol species.

Medical device for comprehensive brain monitoring using portable magnetic resonance technology
Associate Professor Shieak Tzeng (Surgery and Anaesthesia)

Two years, $999,998

Brain tissue is exceptionally vulnerable to ischaemic injury, so early detection and targeted therapy is key to improving survival rates across a wide range of conditions. But current technologies for detecting brain ischaemia are invasive or need costly imaging equipment which is limiting their use. This project aims to develop a non-invasive and cost-effective device that will make it safer, cheaper, and faster for doctors to diagnose and treat ischaemic brain injuries.

We will build on our previous research that showed our concept technology can detect changes in blood oxygenation levels. Our goal now is to design new sensors that can detect a wider range of brain injury biomarkers, such as tissue diffusion and perfusion. This will provide doctors with a full picture of brain injury processes so that treatments can be given in a targeted fashion.

The technology will be portable, and provide data in real-time so that treatment decisions can be made accurately with minimum delay. The device will be built in New Zealand and designed in partnership with health professionals who will use the technology. We will work with New Zealand’s biotechnology industry to make the device accessible worldwide.

This proposal is a key step towards our vision of New Zealand export sales of medical devices that enable comprehensive brain monitoring at the point of care. Since tissue ischaemia is the world's most common brain injury mechanism, such a versatile device could revolutionise the treatment of neurovascular disorders including stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Mātauranga Māori guided discovery and development of new control methods for Phytophthora
Dr Monica Gerth (Biochemistry)

Two years, $1,000,000

Phytophthora are microscopic organisms that cause root rot and dieback diseases in thousands of plant species. It was a Phytophthora species which caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

Today they continue to devastate native ecosystems and cause billions of dollars in damage annually. Two species of particular importance in New Zealand are Phytophthora agathidicida, which causes kauri dieback disease, and Phytophthora cinnamomi, which causes root rot in avocados and other agricultural crops.

Our Smart Idea is that native New Zealand plants produce unique anti-Phytophthora chemical compounds, to protect themselves from infection. Our goal is to isolate, identify and characterise these compounds, so they can be turned into naturally-inspired products for stopping the spread of kauri dieback and preventing avocado root rot.

Mātauranga Māori will be used to identify native plant species with bioactive, anti-pathogen characteristics. Biochemical and microbiological methods will be used to isolate anti-Phytophthora compounds from these native plants, and to test their ability to inhibit various stages of the Phytophthora life cycle. The most promising compounds will also be tested for their effectiveness at stopping infections in controlled glasshouse trials with seedlings.

Our team of experts comprises scientists from the University of Otago, Plant and Food Research and Lincoln University, in equal partnership with mana whenua possessing Mātauranga Māori of New Zealand native plants. Together, we are poised to deliver a uniquely New Zealand solution to the uniquely New Zealand problem of P. agathidicida, which is killing our iconic kauri trees. We will also help to grow the value of the agrichemical and avocado industries. More generally, our cutting-edge science will deliver naturally-inspired, New Zealand-branded products for fighting Phytophthora around the world.

Targeting unique virus proteins with small molecule inhibitors
Professor Vernon Ward (Microbiology and Immunology)

Two years, $927,440

Viruses affect human and animal health, cause large economic losses, and burden healthcare facilities. For many viruses, there are limited or no treatments. One effective means of controlling viruses is the use of antivirals, small chemical compounds that prevent or block viral infection to provide rapid control during disease outbreaks or where there are no vaccine options.

This Smart Idea takes a new approach to antiviral discovery by targeting unique proteins found in many viruses. Viruses have limited genetic material. To overcome this limitation, viruses programme the production of viral proteins designed to be structurally flexible and take on many different roles. This flexibility is due to defined regions within the viral proteins, making them great antiviral targets.

We will identify new compounds that bind these regions of viral proteins. This will pave the way for the development of new antiviral treatments. We will demonstrate Proof-of-Concept with noroviruses. The discovery of new antiviral drugs against norovirus will reduce the health, economic and productivity losses seen during norovirus outbreaks.

Critically, this screening paradigm will enhance New Zealand’s ability to rapidly respond to new and emerging viral diseases, to develop and market new antiviral agents against viruses, and to be innovators in the pipeline of development of antiviral agents.

Otago’s Research Programmes

Developing and applying next generation genomic selection to rapidly improve honeybee performance
Professor Peter Dearden (Biochemistry)

Five years, $6,344,620

Honeybees are critical to New Zealand’s rapidly expanding and high value export seed and honey industries, and underpin the production efficiencies of horticultural and forage-based sectors. To achieve the government’s Business Growth Agenda’s export targets, these sectors require a step-wise change in their productive capacity.

This programme will develop and deploy a honeybee selective breeding system, using modern genomic and bioinformatic tools and quantitative genetics methods, that will effectively and rapidly improve New Zealand's Bee stock.

Real-time analytical molecular diagnostic laboratory in the palm of one’s hand
Dr Jo-Ann Stanton (Anatomy)

Four years, $5,999,792

Despite advances in diagnostic technologies, the ability to rapidly and accurately diagnose infectious disease lags behind what the world requires.

Diagnostic tools able to deliver immediate actionable information (i.e. at the point-of-care or in-field) would address the health and environmental challenges we are facing globally. Some challenge examples include water contamination in Havelock North, HPV testing to provide cervical screening in hard to reach populations, containment of new and emerging diseases like Ebola and SARS, and prevention of antibiotic resistance.

Solutions must be simple, accessible, accurate, and yield rapid results thus facilitating appropriate and timely community response and cost-effective treatments to optimise health outcomes.