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Health researchers awarded $78 million in new funding

Slowing the progression of Huntington’s disease, and improving the understanding of the causes, treatment and prevention of gout are among the endeavours awarded funding under the Health Research Council’s annual funding round.

This year researchers were given $78 million, covering 50 new projects ($56 million), four new programmes ($20 million), and 14 Emerging Researcher First Grants ($2.02 million).

Emerging M?ori neuroscientist Dr Melanie Cheung has been awarded nearly $1.2 million for the Huntington’s project, where she’ll measure the effectiveness of a brain resilience training programme that she and her team have developed in partnership with the Brain Plasticity Institute in San Francisco, US.

The University of Auckland-based researcher, a recipient of the HRC’s Eru Pomare Research Fellowship in M?ori Health, is currently at the Brain Plasticity Institute on a Fulbright New Zealand Scholar Fellowship.

Early in her career, Cheung was also awarded a HRC M?ori PhD Scholarship for research into human neurodegenerative disease.

“Specially designed brain training exercises have been used successfully to treat dyslexia, schizophrenia, autism, mild cognitive impairment and traumatic brain injury. Since many of these brain diseases have overlapping symptoms with Huntington’s disease, we suggest that developing computer-based brain training that targets Huntington’s disease symptoms could protect against neurodegeneration,” says Cheung.

Joining Cheung in receiving a HRCRangahau Hauora Project grant is Dr Heather Gifford from Whakauae Research Services in Whanganui and associate professor Beverly Lawton from the University of Otago, Wellington.

Cheung received $1.19 million over three years, while Gifford gained approximately the same figure for a project on preventing chronic health conditions, and Lawton a similar amount for addressing avoidable harm to Maori babies.

University of Canterbury psychologist Dr Jacqueline Henderson received a HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant to carry out a study which will assess the effects of methadone exposure during pregnancy on children’s brain and nervous system development at age nine years, including cognitive development, language, emotional and behavioural adjustment, and school achievement.

Henderson will use longitudinal data of babies born to opiate-dependent mothers enrolled in methadone maintenance treatment during pregnancy.

This data will be analysed alongside a randomly identified community sample of non-methadone exposed babies. 

“Methadone maintenance is the most widely used method of treating pregnant women with an opiate addiction,” says Henderson.

“Despite its widespread use, there is limited evidence of the effects of prenatal methadone exposure in infants, and even less evidence of later child health and neurodevelopmental outcomes.”

Henderson says earlier study findings suggest that infants exposed to methadone are at higher risk of neurological disturbances; cognitive delay; poor psychomotor function and communication skills; and attentional, behavioural and emotional problems.

“Findings from this study will advance our scientific understanding of the complex processes that shape the development of these high risk children, and enhance our ability to develop more effective interventions to support the needs of these children and their families.”

Otago researchers were awarded more than $31 million of the funded handed out. They won 24 contracts including three multi-million dollar, five-year programmes, 14 projects and seven grants for emerging researchers.

Anatomy professor David Grattan will examine how the hormonal changes responsible for helping women’s brains adapt to pregnancy operate – and the serious complications that can occur for mothers and babies when these changes go awry.

Another programme headed by biochemistry associate professor Tony 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, such as alcohol and sugary drinks, in the development of the disease.

The researchers will also examine whether genetic makeup influences response to the standard gout drug, allopurinol.

The third programme extends heart hormone discoveries by researchers at the University’s Christchurch Heart Institute. This research team, led by Professor Mark Richards, will evaluate markers for unmet needs in diagnosing and managing heart failure.

Each of these three programmes are funded at around $5 million over five years.

One of the seven Emerging Researcher Grants goes towards a study examining whether eating bread made with either less salt or with increased levels of L-arginine from hazelnuts or nitrate from beetroot may be a simple way to reduce high blood pressure.

The 14 Otago Project Grants range from basic biomedical investigations into the genetic regulation of brain stem cell development to devising interventions to improve health outcomes for patients suffering multiple diseases.

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