Wednesday 28 March 2018 2:31pm
Otago's Explorer Grant recipients (from left) Professor Kurt Krause, Dr Chris Baldi and Professor Neil McNaughton.
Studies into inflammation, brain activity analysis, and diabetic heart disease have all received a boost from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.
Of the 10 Explorer Grants available this year, University of Otago researchers have received three, worth $150,000 each.
Professor Kurt Krause (of Biochemistry and the Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases) will investigate using smallpox proteins to treat human inflammation.
An important key to the pathogenic success of poxviruses is the immunomodulatory proteins they secrete during infection, which blunt the inflammatory response to infection.
“Since smallpox is the deadliest human virus the world has seen, and since its primary host is human, these proteins may form an optimised cocktail that is ideal for blocking human inflammation.
"This is a radical idea, but the results obtained could serve as the basis for the development of a transformational virus-based anti-inflammatory treatment."
“This is a radical idea, but the results obtained could serve as the basis for the development of a transformational virus-based anti-inflammatory treatment,” Professor Krause says.
Professor Neil McNaughton (of Psychology) plans on developing and validating an in-ear site for mobile and unobtrusive brain activity recording.
“The brain controls everything we do. Analysis of brain activities (electro-encephalograms; EEG) taps into the ultimate biometric, with the potential to assess every physical and mental state we experience,” he says.
The research aims to address the shortcomings of currently available EEG recording techniques.
An in-ear recording site could be administered correctly by the end-user with ease, worn unobtrusively, and record chronically on-the-go, potentially for days.
“This approach will revolutionise how EEG, as the brain biometric, can be used as a diagnostic, monitoring and neuro-feedback treatment tool for the brain,” Professor McNaughton says.
Dr Chris Baldi (of the Dunedin School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine) wants to explore a unique cellular mechanism for diabetic heart disease.
Diabetes reduces the heart’s capacity and increases the incidence of heart failure dramatically. However, cardiac drugs used to treat heart disease are less effective in people with diabetes.
Calcium is released in heart cells, triggering its myofilaments to contract and pump blood to the body. Consequently most cardiac drugs act by altering the rate or amount of calcium release. However, Dr Baldi and his colleagues have found that the contractility of a diabetic heart cell can be improved without changing calcium release.
"Congratulations to all those who got through – we know some of these studies will make a real difference to what we know, how we think, and eventually result in better outcomes for New Zealanders."
Using pieces of human heart tissue, Dr Baldi and his team will test an alternative hypothesis that the calcium sensitivity of myofilament is reduced in diabetic heart cells.
“If our hypothesis is supported, it will challenge the well-established theory that intracellular calcium availability underlies diabetic cardiac dysfunction and provide a new target for developing therapies,” Dr Baldi says.
HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson is keen to hear the results of the “innovative” studies.
“The grants aim to support scientists to do work that challenges established wisdom – to really go where no one has gone before and break new ground.
“Even the way the grants are assessed is breaking new ground because peer review, in its usual form, is not done. Notably, assessment of the projects is blind to who the applicant is, meaning it’s the idea that matters, not track record.
“Congratulations to all those who got through – we know some of these studies will make a real difference to what we know, how we think, and eventually result in better outcomes for New Zealanders,” she says.