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It’s difficult for universities to see some of their most talented young graduates head overseas to advance their knowledge. It can be equally difficult for departed alumni to return to New Zealand when they are forging glittering careers at prestigious international institutions. So it was headline news when two researchers making names for themselves at Oxford and Cambridge both decided to return to Otago.

They came back for similar reasons. New Zealand was home, they liked Otago and the lifestyle, and they were taking up academic positions that suited them perfectly. But they were also aware of northern colleagues suggesting that a move to New Zealand might limit their options.

That was a decade ago. Ever since, Professors Stephen Robertson and Allan Herbison have been disproving the doubters and continuing to make the news.

Professor Stephen Robertson returned to take up the inaugural Cure Kids Chair in Child Health Research and establish a Clinical Genetics Laboratory at Otago.

Some three per cent of children are born with structural imperfections that impair their health, often needing significant medical intervention. A few problems are linked to known genetic or environmental causes, but the reasons behind most are unknown.

The Clinical Genetics Laboratory seeks to identify the genetic causes for some of the rarer malformations, trying to understand the connections between mutated genes and the diseases they are linked to.

Robertson (Paediatrics and Child Health) has broken new ground with research that could enable the development of therapies for babies born with brain damage.

The findings – recently published in the high profile journal Nature Genetics – are a significant step forwards, but Robertson cautions that clinical application is still a long way off.

“We are always encouraged to do research that has a useful goal, but at this stage our therapeutic aim lies on a far-distant horizon.

“We have found a mechanism that operates in the developing foetus that signals to neural stem cells to divide and form the mature brain. I’m uncomfortable with predictions, but it would be nice to think that one day we could fiddle with that apparatus to use those same stem cells to repair a damaged brain in an infant.”

Much basic neurogenetic research is carried out with standard lab animals. But, as there is a lot of difference between a rodent brain and a primate brain, Robertson’s team studies human diseases to find genetic clues that will be relevant to human health and development.

“In the case of these brain malformations, we know that some of these developmental programmes have gone awry. We attempt to work backwards from that, trying to understand the ways the brain constructs itself during foetal and early infant life.

“Using this approach, some other groups have shown that the molecular cogs and winches that manhandle neurons into position in the brain are at fault in some instances. In this latest study we’ve been looking at the signals that tell them what to do – the conductors that direct the orchestra so those stem cells play the proper tune as they make a brain.”

Years of hard work, international co-operation, inspiration and a little luck resulted in the discovery of genes that are significantly advancing our understanding of human brain development.

It’s just the latest in a string of breakthroughs that have made Otago a respected centre for genetic research, a fact that gives Robertson cause for some satisfaction.

“Ten years ago at Oxford I knew I had chiselled out the beginnings of an area of expertise I could continue to develop. I hoped to at least maintain that at Otago but, instead, we have expanded it and developed other areas of specialist strength as well.

“I did not think it was going to go as well as it has, or as quickly, and our work now is bigger and broader than I initially thought it would be.”

After studying medicine at Otago, Robertson trained and advanced his studies in Auckland and Melbourne before taking up a fellowship at Oxford to work on the genetic determinants of congenital malformations in children.

At Oxford his mentor speculated that moving to New Zealand would make his research 50 per cent more difficult – but Robertson decided to think positively.

“It was evident to me that there were some things truly in my favour, right from the beginning when I was in England applying for the post back here.

“There were legions of people at Otago who happily put their shoulders to the wheel to make my transition as smooth as possible. They just wanted to make it happen. People supported me from all over the University and that was quite exceptional.

“People in Oxford saw it happening and also realised that there was something quite special about where I was going.”

Robertson credits a great deal of his success to a combination of reliable funding from Cure Kids, a cohesive and committed team, and wholehearted support from both colleagues and senior staff at Otago.

“I have nothing but praise for the leadership and the collaborative spirit that is so much a part of the Otago culture. My team can draw on experience from all over the University.

“We have a great community here in genetics with huge strengths stretching all the way from microbial to evolutionary genetics – the big picture stuff. Otago is a really exciting place to work as well as a great place to be situated.”

Funding has been crucial, says Robertson. “The help we get from Cure Kids is a large reason why we are doing so well. It’s a huge privilege and influence on our work to have not just one-off support, but a continuous long-term relationship with a lot of goodwill on both sides.”

Goodwill is also important for international collaborations.

“Studying clinical diseases means my life blood is working with clinical geneticists all over the world. You can run an international research programme from New Zealand electronically – I’ve met one of my main colleagues in Germany only once – but it does take time to maintain those relationships.”

Human genetics is a fast-moving field and advances in DNA testing technology are indicating a busy and bright future for Robertson and his team.

“In the last 10 years we have learned so much about genetics and much of our own work has already been translated into clinical practice. That will only increase in the coming years.

“We are on the crest of a breaking wave. Who knows where that will take us? We can only see so far ahead and continue to focus on our strengths.”

Professor Allan Herbison came back to Otago to set up a Centre for Neuroendocrinology, focusing on how reproduction is controlled by mechanisms in the brain.

He started with four staff. Now he is director of nine collaborating research laboratories in a custom-designed building – the largest reproductive neuroendocrinology research cluster in the world.

Herbison (Physiology) received the University’s highest research honour, the Distinguished Research Medal, in 2011 and his own team has recently made a major breakthrough in identifying signals in the brain that can turn fertility on or off.

There’s worldwide interest in the work, which could lead to potential therapies for infertile couples as well as possible new methods of contraception.

In New Zealand, some 20 per cent of couples have problems with infertility, a situation that is reflected in many countries where increasing numbers of women delay trying for children until later in life.

“Our latest findings are an important step,” says Herbison, “but they’re just one part of our investigations into how the network of cells in the brain controls fertility.”

After an Otago medical degree, Herbison studied in Cambridge and France before 15 years of biomedical research at Cambridge’s Babraham Institute.

His reputation was so well established that he was able to bring UK funding with him to set up his laboratory at Otago.

“Making the Centre for Neuroendocrinology a possibility is by far the biggest thing I’ve done,” says Herbison. “[Professor] Dave Grattan and I started the key work in 2003 – he’s just one of many I could mention – and now we have a centre that is leading the world.

“When I left England to return to Otago, people thought that would be the last they’d hear of me, but we turned it around and now everybody knows about what we are doing in neuroendocrinology. We are one of the power labs in the world in this field.”

Herbison says he can now advise his students that they don’t have to travel overseas to advance their postgraduate studies and that there are advantages to staying in New Zealand.

“It used to be that you needed to study and work at top institutions in the UK or the US. Places like Cambridge attract the top people and the best students who produce the best research. Their international reputation builds on itself like a snowball.

“It was a concern when I came back that I was leaving such a high-powered institution with lots of resources, but now our centre is attracting a lot of people from all over the world. They want to work here and work with the impressive investigators that we’ve recruited here. Now we’re experiencing the snowball effect here at Otago.”

Herbison points out that postgraduate students are more likely to connect with the supervisors and the science in more intimate New Zealand laboratories than at overseas institutions where it is easy to get lost in the crowd.

There are still negatives to New Zealand’s location, with frustrating waits for supplies such as chemicals to come from overseas and too much long-distance travel.

“Collaborators do come here, but we usually go to them and everywhere is a long way away from New Zealand. But the positives make up for it.

“The people at Otago are just great. It’s a pleasure to work here in an environment where you can make headway. There are no massive egos around each corner. The University has been hugely supportive. People try to make things happen for you.

“Ten years ago I had hoped that I would be able to develop a centre that was better than what I had experienced previously. But I didn’t think it would be this good.

“Now we have to continue to build on our achievements. The technology has improved so much lately that we are developing exciting new tools for exploring brain function. Fabulous possibilities lie ahead.”

Herbison and Robertson beat a time-honoured postgraduate path to traditional centres of excellence like Cambridge and Oxford. But they both returned to New Zealand to perform groundbreaking research and their successes are adding to Otago’s reputation as a world-class university.

NIGEL ZEGA

Photo: Alan Dove