Otago researchers gain $32m in funding

An innovative drug testing approach to help counter aggressive stomach cancer is among many University of Otago research studies which have been boosted by nearly $32million in Health Research Council funding.

Otago University researchers gained the funding - more than that gained by any other New Zealand university - for studies aimed at improving New Zealanders' health and wellbeing.

Otago University had gained $31.98 million in the latest HRC funding round, including recently announced emerging researcher first grants and feasibility study funding, up from $31.55 million in the comparable HRC round last year.

The university also gained three five-year programme grants, each close to $5 million, 15 funding projects, and eight emerging researcher grants.

Auckland University was the second most successful HRC funding recipient and gained, among other funding, one programme grant and 10 project grants, amounting overall to more than $16 million.

Otago deputy vice-chancellor, research and enterprise, Prof Richard Blaikie said the Otago University recipients and their innovative research proposals had enjoyed ''dazzling success'' in the funding round.

Prof Antony Braithwaite, of the Otago University pathology department, is internationally respected for his research involving p53, a protein which protects cells against cancer.

He has gained a $4,901,862 programme grant to investigate that role the p53 gene pathway plays in many cancers, and the way that, because defects in this pathway are common in cancers, they can become an ''attractive target'' for improved therapies.

Prof Philippa Howden-Chapman, of the university's Wellington campus, gained a programme grant ($4,943,710) to translate housing research to benefit children's health, and Prof Anthony Kettle, of Otago's Christchurch campus, gained a programme grant ($4,830,673) and a project grant ($801,555).

Prof Guilford, an award-winning biochemistry researcher, felt ''relief'' and gratitude that he had gained a $1,189,286 project grant to maintain his research into stomach cancer, and could keep his research team together and support a postdoctoral researcher, Dr Augustine Chen.

''Stomach cancer is an aggressive cancer with a very poor prognosis,'' Prof Guilford said.

Some stomach cancers are inherited, but non-familial diffuse gastric cancer is more common in New Zealand, causing about 200 deaths each year.

The new targeted drug approach also aimed to identify drugs to target lobular breast cancer, the second most common form of breast cancer in this country, which resulted in about 400 deaths a year, he said.

He aimed to develop chemoprevention drugs to prevent familial stomach cancer and therapeutic drugs to counter sporadic forms and lobular breast cancer.

Prof Guilford is taking a new approach to test potential drugs to selectively target aggressive cancers, using mouse stem cells to grow small stomach ''organoids'' or buds. These are small 3- groupings of stomach cells, like mini-organs, grown in laboratory dishes, and have many of the stomach's key characteristics.

This would be the first time such organoids had been grown in New Zealand to investigate stomach cancer, the researchers said.

HRC chief executive Prof Kathryn McPherson said the drugs Prof Parry was testing could provide potentially huge health and economic gains to New Zealand.

The 15 funded Otago research projects focus on many topics, including studying a newly discovered neuronal pathway implicated in polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Other Otago University projects gaining HRC funding: Associate Prof Haxby Abbott, surgical sciences, $1,197,719; Dr Jonathan Broadbent, oral rehabilitation, $1,193,937; Dr Rebecca Brookland, preventive and social medicine, $1,193,921; Dr Rebecca Campbell, physiology, $910,114; Dr Jeffrey Erickson, physiology, $1,046,772; Associate Prof Julia Horsfield, pathology, $1,147,327; Dr Peter Mace,biochemistry, $1,128,825; at Otago University's Wellington campus: Dr Donna Cormack, $334,994; Prof Julian Crane, $1,196,068; Dr Tristram Ingham, $1,199,724; Dr Michael Keall, $1,199,815; Associate Prof Lynette Sadlier, $1,198,069; Prof Richard Edwards, $1,199,957.john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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