Annual Grants

Our premier round of year-long, innovative early-stage research projects.

The Council of the Otago Medical Research Foundation selects grants, from applications received each year, to support medical research in the Otago area relating to human health or the basic sciences of relevance to medicine.

Funds (normally <$40,000 and for one year only) allow innovative research projects to be undertaken.

Annual Grants awarded in 2023

ADEPT MACTODD Charitable Trust (Funder)

Cracking the secrets of senescence to reveal mechanisms of ageing and disease

Principal investigator: Dr Erin Macaulay, Department of Pathology, University of Otago.

Co-investigators: Dr Chi Lynch-Sutherland, Children’s Medical Research Institute, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Dr Xaviour Walker, Department of Medicine, University of Otago.

As we age, our cells undergo a process where they stop dividing and release harmful signals. This process is called senescence and plays a key role in ageing and age-related diseases like cancer and heart disease. With the increasing number of ageing individuals and rising prevalence of age-related conditions, understanding the mechanisms behind senescence is urgent. Our research focuses on a genetic disorder where cells avoid senescence and form tumours. By studying senescence in these cells, we aim to uncover its secrets and develop novel strategies and treatments that promote healthy ageing and alleviate the burden of age-related conditions on our healthcare system. 

Aotea Holdings Group Limited (Funder)

Breaking up free living sedentary time in the evening with regular activity breaks: A feasibility study 

Principal investigator: Dr Meredith Peddie, of Human Nutrition, University of Otago  

Prolonged periods of sitting in the evening, and sleeping for less than 7 hours a night, are both associated with an increased risk of developing several diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Our group was among the first to show, in a laboratory setting, that regularly interrupting prolonged periods of prolonged sitting with brief bouts of activity in the evening improved blood sugar uptake, and sleep duration both of which can reduce the risk of developing these diseases. To date, no study has investigated whether people would be willing to break up their sitting time in the evening as part of everyday life. Therefore, this study will explore the feasibility of interrupting sitting time in the evening with body weight resistance exercises in a real-life setting. 

Aotearoa Gaming Trust (Funder)

Investigating genomic alteration in tumour cells under the pressure of anti-tumour immune responses

Principal investigator: Dr Kunyu Li, Department of Pathology, University of Otago.

Co-investigators: Prof Antony Braithwaite and Prof Mike Eccles, Department of Pathology, University of Otago.

Despite the recent success of some cancer treatment strategies, most cancer patients develop cancer reoccurrence after the initial response to the treatments. There is evidence suggesting that these cancer cells had mutated, adapted, and resisted to the treatments in order to survive. In this research, we aim to understand how immune response might influence the mutation of cancer cells that allows them to develop resistance to subsequent killing by the immune system, using an animal model of melanoma. The findings of this research contribute to the improvement of treatment outcomes for cancer. 

OceanaGold (Funder)

A neuroendocrine role for GIP in the treatment of obesity

Principal Investigator Dr. Alexander Tups, Associate Professor, Department of Physiology, University of Otago

Co- investigator Dr. Geke Aline Boer, Research Fellow, Department of Physiology, University of Otago

The prevalence of obesity is increasing worldwide and is associated with serious health problems and mortality. An important cause of obesity is an imbalance between energy intake through food consumption and energy expenditure. Glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide (GIP) is secreted from the gut when we consume food and there are indications that GIP may signal through regions of the brain to influence food consumption and metabolism. Using a genetically modified mouse model, we will determine how GIP signals in the brain to help maintain a healthy energy balance. Results of these studies will aid future development of obesity therapies.

Otago Community Trust (Funder)

Understanding the host immune landscape of bacterial skin infections

Principal investigator: Dr Daniel Pletzer, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Otago.
Co-investigators: Dr Rajesh Lamichhane & Dr Sam Taylor Wardell, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Otago.

The skin is the body’s defence barrier that protects from physical and chemical damages as well as prevents the entry of infectious agents. Damage to skin integrity can result in various skin diseases caused by bacterial microorganisms. In addition, the presence of different types of bacteria at the same time can lead to more severe infections that make effective treatment difficult. Our study will investigate small changes in host immune cells in response to individual and mixed bacterial infections to understand how the presence of one or more bacterial species alter the host immune response.

Otago Community Trust (funder)

Targeted use of combination treatments in inflammatory bowel disease

Principal investigator: Dr Nicholas Fleming, Department of Pathology, University of Otago.

Co-investigator: Prof. Michael Schultz Department of Medicine, University of Otago.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a significant and growing health burden for Aotearoa/New Zealand, which currently affects at least 20,000 Kiwis. IBD patients have a limited range of treatments available, to which they vary greatly in response. Recently, a new group of drugs has emerged that may cooperate with existing options and allow more patients to control their disease. However, this new combination treatment will add significant cost, and we need to identify those it will work best for. Here, we will test a genetic marker that we propose will serve this purpose.

Annual Grants awarded in 2022

ADEPT MACTODD Charitable Trust (Funder)

Novel, cost effective solutions for equitable tumour mutational burden testing in NZ

Lead Researcher: Dr Robert Day, Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago

Cancer is New Zealand’s biggest killer and targeting effective therapies to patients who are likely to benefit will improve outcomes. The number of DNA changes in a tumour can predict how well a person will respond to therapies that induce the patient’s own immune system to attack the cancer. Current genomic profiling methods used to estimate mutational changes are costly, time consuming and inaccessible to many New Zealanders. Here we aim to develop and implement more efficient methods that will facilitate improved and equitable cancer care. 

Aotea Holdings Group (funder)

Using carbon monoxide to prevent doxorubicin-induced cardiotoxicity.

Lead Researcher: Dr Abigail Bland, Pharmacology & Toxicology, School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Otago

Doxorubicin remains one of the most commonly used chemotherapies for cancers, including triple negative breast cancer. Although doxorubicin provides effective cancer treatment, it can inadvertently produce severe heart damage. However, reducing the dose or discontinuing treatment risks accelerated tumour progression and premature death. As low doses of carbon monoxide have been shown to be cardioprotective, this project will explore a safe carbon monoxide-releasing molecule to prevent heart damage from doxorubicin.

Margaret Begg Charitable Trust (Funder)

How does mutation of cytochrome C cause low platelets?

Lead Researcher: Associate Professor Elizabeth Ledgerwood, Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago

Platelets are small blood cells that are essential for clotting and repair of damaged blood vessels. When people have low platelets (e.g. following chemotherapy) they require platelet transfusions. Because donated platelets have a short shelf life, scientists worldwide are trying to develop new ways of producing platelets. This requires us to fully understand how platelets are normally made. Studying people with inherited low platelets helps us understand how human platelets are made. We have identified NZ families with mutations that cause low platelets. We will determine how these mutations change platelet production. By enhancing our understanding of platelet formation, we will help international efforts identifying new therapeutic approaches for treating low platelets.

Aotearoa Gaming Trust (Funder)

Switching from tolerance to resistance: are ncRNAs the missing link?

Lead Researcher: Dr Glen Reid, Department of Pathology, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago

Cancer treatment has been revolutionised by targeted therapeutics which act by blocking the pathways that drive cancer. However, despite initial dramatic results, relapse is inevitable and a major clinical problem. Recent studies have identified a rare population of drug-tolerant cells as being largely responsible for relapse. These cells evade therapy and become permanently resistant by acquiring mutations. Here we will determine how drug-tolerant cells gain the mutations which allow them to permanently evade therapy. By understanding how drug-tolerant cells become permanently resistant our long-term goal is to prevent their contribution to relapse and improve treatment outcomes for cancer patients.

OceanaGold (Funder)

Role of a cytochrome oxidase in making Pseudomonas aeruginosa tolerant to antibiotics

Lead Researcher: Professor Iain Lamont, Department of Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is an extremely problematic bacterial pathogen, causing a wide range of infections. Antibiotics often fail to eradicate the bacteria. During infections P. aeruginosa often exists under conditions where little or no oxygen is present. We have identified a protein that helps the bacteria to resist a key antibiotic, tobramycin, during growth in the absence of oxygen. In this research we will investigate how this protein helps the bacteria resist tobramycin. The research could lead to more reliable methods for predicting which antibiotics will be effective in treating Pseudomonas infections, and in the long-term much-needed new tools for treatment.

Otago Community Trust (Funder)

A NZ family to reveal pathways of B-cell immunity and cancer

Lead Researcher: Professor Ian Morison, Department of Pathology, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago

Naturally occurring genetic variants within families provide an opportunity to reveal the pathways of human disease. We are studying a NZ family with Otago members who have a specific genetic mutation that predisposes them to autoimmune destruction of their own platelets, but also appears to predispose them to cancers of the immune system. Two members of the family have, at a young age, developed cancers of immune cells. While mouse experiments have shown disturbed immune cell development, humans are different and this family provide an opportunity to determine the role of the affected gene (MYB) in human health and disease

Otago Community Trust (Funder)

Development of a dual action molecular targeting construct for the treatment of ADPKD

Lead Researcher: Professor Mike Eccles, Department of Pathology, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago

Autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD) is one of the most common inherited fatal diseases in humans, affecting about 1 in 1000 people. Multiple members of one family can be afflicted, with devastating consequences. Tolvaptan is the only available treatment for ADPKD, although it has severe side-effects. We, and others, have shown that lowering the expression of certain genes that promote cyst growth can slow disease progression. In this proposal we will test a molecular approach that targets two of these gene products at once, PAX2 and miR-17. Developing ADPKD-specific treatments is the key to slow cyst formation and delay kidney failure.

Otago Community Trust (Funder)

Examining the relationship between epicardial fat and heart health of post- menopausal women

Lead Researcher: Dr Hamish Aitken-Buck, Physiology, School of Biomedical Sciences (BMS), University of Otago

The thickness of fat surrounding the heart and the risk of heart disease both increase markedly in women after menopause. How changes in heart fat might contribute to heart disease processes is unknown. Using human samples, this project aims to determine whether fat deposits and formation of scar tissue within the hearts of post-menopausal women is linked to differences in fat metabolism and expression of pro-scarring factors within heart fat. The insights gained from this research will fill important gaps in the understanding of why a woman’s heart becomes more susceptible to disease after menopause.

Previous Annual Grant funding rounds