Researchers get $3.5m to target major health issues

Researchers get $3.5m to target major health issues

This article was originally published on Victory University of Wellington

Scientists working on new treatments to combat the world's most dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria are among Victoria University of Wellington-led research teams to receive more than $3.5 million in the latest Health Research Council (HRC) of New Zealand funding round.

Other grant recipients are conducting research that could improve quality of life for the 2.5 million multiple sclerosis (MS) sufferers across the globe, and are investigating ways to integrate digital health surveys with matching therapies.

Welcoming the funding, Professor Mike Wilson, Victoria University of Wellington’s Acting Vice-Provost (Research) and Pro Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Science, says ‘Improving health and wellbeing in our communities’ is an area of academic focus at the University and the projects receiving the three-year grants are prime examples of that in action.

“One of the projects is from a researcher in our new Faculty of Health. The Faculty was launched last year, incorporating existing health programmes around the University along with new ones, and has quickly established itself as a valuable part of the New Zealand health landscape,” says Professor Wilson.

“The other projects are from the Faculty of Science, where we have a long history of extensive health-related research, further reflecting our expertise and commitment in this important area.”

Professor David Ackerley, Biotechnology Programme Director in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences, is heading the team focused on combatting ‘Gram negative’ bacteria—hard-to-treat bacteria that occupy the top spots on the World Health Organisation’s Priority Pathogens List.

The team is seeking to repurpose niclosamide, an approved treatment for tapeworms, and includes Professor Gary Evans, Deputy Director of Victoria University of Wellington’s Ferrier Research Institute, and Professor Morten Sommer of the Technical University of Denmark. Dr Janine Copp of the University of British Columbia in Canada is a key collaborator.

“Several recent published reports say niclosamide can also be an effective antiobiotic against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, but that it does nothing to Gram negative bacteria. We have discovered why, have identified solutions, and with this money from the HRC will be able to further explore niclosamide’s potential,” says Professor Ackerley.

Early-stage commercial activities to support the implementation of this research have been funded by KiwiNet.

The project will receive $1,189,475 from the HRC.

Dr Bronwyn Kivell, a Senior Lecturer in Physiology and Neurobiology in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences, is heading the team targeting the debilitating neurological disease MS, of which New Zealanders have one of the highest rates in the world.

The team is investigating a number of pathways to alleviate and potentially reverse the disease, even in its progressive form, for which there are currently no effective treatments.

“It is our goal to have this work proceed to clinical trials, and beyond that to provide a treatment option that can make meaningful changes for people who live with MS,” says Dr Kivell.

Her team includes Anne La Flamme, Professor of Immunology and Cell Biology in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Biological Sciences and leader of the MS programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, along with Professor Thomas Prisinzano from the University of Kansas in the United States.

The project has been supported by the Malaghan Institute and the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand.

It will receive $1,167,846 from the HRC.

Dr Theresa Fleming, a Senior Lecturer in Population Health in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Health, is heading the University’s third HRC project, which aims to transform the norm whereby people surveyed to identify their health needs aren’t at the same time offered matching interventions.

Dr Fleming was one of the developers of SPARX, a digital therapy for teenage depression that has been funded for four years by the Ministry of Health.

“It looks like an old school computer game but actually provides proven cognitive behavioural therapy skills in a non-threatening way,” she says.

“Digital interventions like this are highly scalable and increasingly important in health strategies. Our money from the HRC will enable us to investigate ways to integrate opt-in digital interventions with online health surveys. Focusing on potential youth health gains, we will be trialling interventions through a modified version of the Youth2000 survey series for high school students in the north of the North Island.”

Dr Fleming’s team includes Associate Professor Sue Crengle from the University of Otago, Dr Roshini Peiris-John from the University of Auckland and Associate Professor Dave Parry from AUT university in Auckland.

The project will receive $1,189,388 from the HRC.

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