From a global health crisis to Aotearoa’s health inequity – University of Otago projects awarded Health Research Council funding will benefit those at home and around the world.
Nineteen Otago researchers and students have been granted a total of $3,792,410 in the latest Career Development Awards, which include general, MÄori and Pacific awards.
These awards help launch research careers through a wide range of master’s and PhD scholarships and help develop research leaders through advanced postdoctoral fellowships. They also support frontline clinicians to undertake research that will improve the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders, while addressing critical gaps in the research workforce.
Dr Simon Jackson, of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has been granted almost $600,000 with a Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship to help find a solution to a problem affecting the world – antimicrobial resistance.
“The rapid spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacterial pathogens is driving a major global health crisis and we urgently need new treatments for clinical infections,” Dr Jackson explains.
The use of bacterial viruses, called bacteriophages, or phages, as precision antimicrobials to kill bacterial pathogens, is a promising approach to address the AMR crisis, he says.
“Since their discovery over 100 years ago, phages have been explored for their use as therapeutic agents. However, the discovery and pursuit of antibiotics led to a historic side-lining of phage therapy. The rise of AMR is now driving a global renaissance in the phage therapy field.”
A major challenge facing modern phage therapy is in finding the right phages to use against specific pathogen strains. Dr Jackson’s research aims to solve this problem using a genomics-led approach to predict which phages should be used to treat particular infections.
“Part of the challenge in finding phages to kill specific bacteria strains is that bacteria possess immune systems to protect themselves from phage infections – similar to how our immune systems protect us from viruses,” Dr Jackson explains.
“Understanding how theses immune systems sense and respond to phage infections is the central theme of this project. A major strength of my research programme is in combining bioinformatics and computational biology approaches with wet-lab experiments,” he says.
“We are also looking at how phages can evolve to evade triggering bacterial immune systems, potentially leading to phages that have more widespread clinical applicability.”
Although the project is primarily research-based, Dr Jackson and his team are keen to support future applications of phage-based treatments for patients in Aotearoa.
“As part of this, the project includes establishing an integrated research and educational outreach programme, where students isolate and characterise new phages that might one day be used to treat patients.”
Thirteen staff and students received funding specifically for MÄori or Pacific health research – the majority of which have a purpose of improving the quality of life for those populations and addressing the inequity gap in the health system.
Those projects include one by student Emily Bain, who will focus on the inequity of Aotearoa’s Needs Assessment and Co-ordination centre, third year biomedical sciences student Flynn Macredie’s project will seek interventions to improve maternal immunisation coverage, and Beatrice Hessell is concentrating on Pacific workplace wellbeing.
However, it is not just those 15 projects focusing on health inequities; Dr Thomas Wilkinson, of Christchurch, has been granted $260,000 for a Clinical Research Training Fellowship to investigate an “artificial pancreas” that combines a glucose monitor and insulin pump with a computer program, to treat diabetes. He is particularly focussed on “open source” technology that minimises cost, therefore helping to closing the ethnic and socioeconomic outcome gaps.
Dr Christina Cleghorn, of Wellington, will use her $600,000 Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship to provide evidence to encourage changes in nutrition policy. This has the potential of reducing chronic disease health inequities.
University of Otago Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise Professor Richard Blaikie congratulates the recipients on their success.
“The range of topics that will be explored by Otago students and staff will have significant health impacts and benefits in Aotearoa and globally,” Professor Blaikie says.
“It is always particularly pleasing to see so many students and emerging researchers recognised by the Health Research Council.”