Research funds hit $31.3m

Richard Blaikie.
Richard Blaikie.
University of Otago researchers have gained more than $31.3 million in new Health Research Council (HRC) funding, more than double the comparable Otago funding last year, to undertake more cutting-edge health studies.

In the overall $78 million HRC funding round, Otago researchers gained more than twice the $15.5 million they received in a similar round last year.

Otago researchers gained 24 contracts, including 14 research projects and three of the four major five-year programmes, the latter each receiving about $5 million.

Otago research and enterprise deputy vice-chancellor Prof Richard Blaikie was ''over the moon'' about the success, including grants for researchers at Otago's Christchurch and Wellington campuses, in the strongly contested round.

It was also ''very pleasing'' half of the 14 Emerging Researcher First Grants had gone to Otago researchers, he said.

Two of the Otago research programmes will explore matters linked to New Zealand's growing obesity epidemic.

University of Otago academic Prof Dave Grattan.. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
University of Otago academic Prof Dave Grattan.. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Prof Dave Grattan, of the Otago anatomy department, has been awarded nearly $5 million, to undertake a new study.

This will focus partly on how the pregnancy hormones prolactin and placental lactogen induce changes in the mother's brain to help her adapt to the physiological and metabolic demands of pregnancy.

Serious complications could arise if related changes went awry, with resulting conditions including maternal obesity, gestational diabetes and postnatal depression.

Prof Grattan was ''absolutely thrilled'' to gain the funding, which would keep a more than 20-strong research team together.

Maternal obesity was ''incredibly common'' in New Zealand, and was known to have long-term effects, including on offspring.

But the detailed causes of maternal obesity were not well understood, and more knowledge was needed, he said.

Associate Prof Tony Merriman, of the Otago biochemistry department, felt ''relief'' that a more than 10-strong research group at Otago, investigating gout-related issues, could be kept together, maintaining collaborative links with researchers elsewhere, including abroad.

The programme, headed by Prof Merriman, aims to improve the understanding of the causes, treatment and prevention of gout by studying the complex interplay of genetic and environmental risk factors, including alcohol and sugary drinks, in the development of this ''painful and debilitating disease''.

New Zealand researchers had built an international reputation in this field, and aspects of the research, including matters such as sugary drink consumption, were also linked to concerns about New Zealand's obesity epidemic across the general population, Prof Merriman said.

The third programme involves researchers led by Prof Mark Richards, at Otago's Christchurch Heart Institute, who will evaluate markers for diagnosing and managing heart failure.

Other Dunedin-based HRC funding recipients: Prof Antony Braithwaite, pathology, $1,176,905; Prof Susan Dovey, general practice and rural health, $1,174,690; Associate Prof Greg Jones, surgical sciences, $1,138,354; Dr Brett Maclennan, preventive and social medicine, $1,190,521; Associate Prof Sally McCormick, biochemistry, $1,044,053; Prof Ian McLennan, anatomy, $1,169,770; Prof Neil McNaughton, psychology, $1,040,728; Prof Stephen Robertson, women's and child health, $1,185,630; Emerging researcher first grants: Dr Katherine Black, human nutrition, $149,994; Dr Allan Gamble, pharmacy, $144,275; Dr Christopher Jackson, medicine, $145,529; Dr Sandra Mandic, physical education, sport and exercise sciences, $149,941; Dr Ninya Maubach, marketing, $109,940; Dr Emma Wyeth, preventive and social medicine, $149,410.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz