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 2021

ADEPT MACTODD Charitable Trust (Funder)

Circulating microRNAs as prognostic indicator of ischemic heart disease

Lead Researcher: Associate Professor Rajesh Katare, Department of Pathology, University of Otago

In patients with chronic heart disease, the transition from a clinically stable disease to an acute life-threatening event remains unpredictable. Echocardiography is used to determine changes in cardiac function that requires patients visiting a specialty centre, which is expensive and infrequent. Our on-going clinical study identified micromolecules released by the diseased heart into the circulation. We aim to complete the first five-year follow-up study to determine whether changes in the level of these circulating micromolecules correspond to changes in cardiac function, as measured by echocardiography. If these blood micromolecules indicate heart disease, patients can be tested frequently by their local doctor to monitor progression of disease and their response to treatment.

Aotea Holdings Group (Funder)

Exploring short chain fatty acids as immune modulators for cancer therapy

Lead Researcher: Professor Roslyn Kemp, Department of Microbiology & Immunology, University of Otago

The immune response is an important mechanism for destroying tumours. In cancer patients, a high number of T cells in the tumour is associated with positive patient outcomes, and immune therapies that improve T cell function have increased patient survival. The function of T cells, and T cell mediated therapies, have been linked with microbial communities. Our research will focus on the molecules produced by bacteria, and how they can change T cell function. We will test whether the bacterial molecules can enhance T cell mediated immune responses.

Aotearoa Gaming Trust (Funder)

BARD1: a valuable new marker to predict the outcome of triple-negative breast cancer patients

Lead Researcher: Dr Magda Ratajska, Department of Pathology, University of Otago

Drugs targeting specific mutations improve patients' outcome in several cancer types, including breast cancer. Women with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) do not express HER2 or estrogen/progesterone receptors, therefore they are unable to benefit from hormonal or targeted therapy. However, TNBC is more common in patients with BRCA1 mutations and they respond well to PARP inhibitor drugs (PARPi). Patients with mutations in other genes, like BARD1, can also benefit from PARPi. Here, we will characterize TNBCs with BARD1 alterations and explore the molecular features associated with patient survival. This research might help in identifying the population of patients with the greatest potential benefit from PARP inhibitor.

Margaret Begg Charitable Trust (Funder)

Repeating the past: a role for early developmental genes in malignancy

Lead Researcher: Dr Erin Macaulay, Department of Pathology, University of Otago

Genes that promote life may also drive death. We have discovered a unique set of genes in melanoma (a dangerous skin cancer) that are also expressed in tissues of early human development. Our recent data shows that these “early developmental” genes become reactivated in melanoma, and potentially other cancer types. Importantly, these genes are not expressed in any other healthy adult tissue, so we could target them specifically in the cancer cells. This would greatly reduce side effects for patients, because their healthy cells won’t be affected. Therefore, these genes may be useful as new melanoma therapies, which are desperately needed in New Zealand.

OceanaGold (Funder)

How does lack of oxygen increase antibiotic resistance in Pseudomonas aeruginosa?

Lead Researcher: Professor Iain Lamont, 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 think this is one reason why antibiotics don't work properly. In this research we will investigate how Pseudomonas tolerates a key antibiotic, tobramycin, in the absence of oxygen, and investigate the effects of oxygen deprivation on effectiveness of a second antibiotic colistin. The research could lead to better tools for predicting which antibiotics will be effective in treating Pseudomonas infections, and for improved patient treatment through co-administration of oxygen with antibiotics.

Otago Community Trust (Funder)

Rurality, deprivation and ethnicity: their intersection and impact on health

Lead Researcher: Associate Professor Gabrielle Davie, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago

Unfair differences in health between socioeconomic and ethnic groups exist in NZ. It is currently less clear whether similar rural-urban differences exist and whether poor health outcomes can be explained by the socioeconomic and ethnic composition of rural areas. Obtaining clarity on this is essential to appropriately informing health policy, planning, and the delivery of health services in rural areas. Using a recently completed and robust method of classifying areas as rural or urban, this research will examine the overlap between ethnicity, socioeconomic deprivation and rurality and the influence that these factors have on health outcomes and inequities.

Otago Community Trust (Funder) 

Breast milk nutrient composition in healthy mother-infant pairs

Lead Researcher: Dr Lisa Daniels, Department of Medicine, University of Otago

Despite breast milk being the main food for 69% of babies until about 8 months of age, we don’t currently know how much breast milk they are consuming, or what the nutrient composition is, which makes it challenging to understand what intakes are required for health. In our First Foods New Zealand study, we are investigating how much breast milk New Zealand babies are consuming; this application is an extension of this work to determine the related nutrient composition of that breast milk from mother-infant pairs. Combining these novel data will yield new understanding about nutrient intakes at this very important time of life.

Otago Community Trust (Funder) 

Developing Better Therapies for Metastatic Oestrogen Receptor Positive Breast Cancer

Lead Researcher: Dr Anita Dunbier, Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago

Over three quarters of breast cancer patients diagnosed in New Zealand present with hormone-sensitive disease and are treated with anti-oestrogen therapy. Unfortunately, many develop resistance to this therapy and spread to other parts of the body leading to significant loss of life. Better treatments for these patients are urgently needed. Our previous work suggests that anti-oestrogen therapy may make tumours more responsive to treatment that stimulates the immune system. We plan to test whether immune therapies in combination with anti-oestrogen therapy can be effective against cancers that have metastasised to other parts of the body.

Previous Annual Grant funding rounds