University of Otago biochemist Associate Prof Tony
Merriman is among the leaders of an international research
project involving gout genetics. He was also the co-author of a
major study, recently published in The Lancet, which
highlighted the disturbingly rapid growth of obesity in this
country. And he recently gained $5 million from the Health
Research Council to continue his gout-related research for
another five years.
University of Otago gout and obesity researcher Associate
Prof Tony Merriman says our love affair with sugary fizzy
drinks is adding to New Zealand's obesity epidemic. Photo
by Linda Robertson.
University of Otago biochemist Associate Prof Tony Merriman
is keen to shatter some popular myths about gout and New
Zealand's obesity epidemic.
Gout was once known as ''the disease of kings''.
Another popular image of gout, from 19th century England, is
that of a red-faced squire, with an overfondness for drinking
Prof Merriman points out that although those images linger,
they have been left far behind by today's realities.
The mass production of food and sugary drinks means many more
people - not just a social elite - can now eat and drink
''like a king''.
He points out that gout - a damaging form of arthritis - is
''very prevalent'' in New Zealand.
More than 100,000 New Zealanders have it, including 3% of
Europeans, 6% of Maori, and 8% of Pacific people.
''If it is not treated then it can be very debilitating.''
Lack of treatment was quite common, through a combination of
reasons, including the ''social stigma of gout''.
Untreated gout could lead to time off work, pain and
permanent disability because of large build-ups of uric acid.
Consumption of alcohol, fructose-sweetened drinks, meat and
seafood have been suggested as dietary contributors to gout.
Prof Merriman and Dr Lisa Te Morenga, also of Otago
University, are part of a recently formed group called
''Fizz'', which is waging war on sugary drinks and junk food.
Prof Merriman was also the lead author of a study last year
which showed that consuming sugary drinks reversed the
benefits of a gene variant, SLCA9, which usually helped
transport uric acid out of the bloodstream and facilitated
its excretion through the kidney.
''A fundamental cause of gout is increased uric acid levels,
and we know a relatively decent amount about the genes and
environmental factors that cause increased uric acid
levels,'' Prof Merriman says.
''However, we know very little about why only some people
with increased uric acid levels get gout.''
These are the issues Prof Merriman is helping to address in
an international genetic research project which has just been
supported by a $5 million programme grant from the Health
He was ''very relieved'' to gain the funding, ''a recognition
of the importance of gout in New Zealand'', and meant the
momentum built up in recent years in gout research could be
maintained and ''very talented people in my research group
He is also ''very excited'' about an imminent genome-wide
scan for gout genes, also involving other researchers
And one of his broader, long-term goals is to ''research the
genetic causes of increased weight in New Zealand''.
He hopes this research information ''may go some way to
dispelling general myths around obesity'' - and may dispel
the belief that somehow obesity was ''the fault of the
He also hopes that future research findings, further
highlighting the importance of genetic elements in weight
gain, will help turn around ''ingrained prejudices that lead
In turn, this stigma was ''a barrier to bringing in the sort
of environment changes needed to address obesity, and the
associated serious conditions such as kidney and heart
disease, gout and diabetes''.
He urges more awareness of the strong genetic contributing
factors to obesity and more action to improve the
The latter includes the wide availability of sugary drinks at
much lower prices than more healthy products like milk.
Prof Merriman says he initially became interested, in the
early 1990s, in the ''genetic and environmental causes of
common diseases'' because of a strong family connection.
His wife, Marilyn, has type 1 diabetes, a largely congenital
''That's really what got me started in the whole field,'' he
And that was the subject he subsequently studied in his
postdoctoral work at Oxford University, after his Otago
''When I returned to New Zealand in 1998, I turned to
rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease with similarities
to type 1 diabetes, and then to gout, largely because of the
need for research into gout, both nationally and
Prof Merriman was born in Gore and grew up in Pukerau, near
Gore, also at Herbert, south of Oamaru, but mostly in
Dunedin, where he attended King's High School.
If sparked by personal factors, his research is also driven
on by a strong sense of curiosity, that he has also noticed
among fellow scientists.
One of his favourite holiday spots in North Otago is the
''I just love walking up that river. You have a long stretch
and then there's a question - what's round the next
bend?''Science is very similar - you just want to find out.''