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Auckland researcher Zoe Woolf says she wouldn’t have been able to do a PhD without the help of the Auckland Medical Research Foundation.

Four medical research projects that could change New Zealanders' lives

The Auckland Medical Research Foundation funds life-changing medical research and thanks to the support of donors, these projects could improve many New Zealanders' quality of life. Read more about them here:

Striving to improve brain cancer treatment

The first question people ask when given the news that they have cancer is usually “how long have I got?”. If they have a GBM brain cancer the answer can be even more devastating.

GBM, glioblastoma multiforme, is the most common and aggressive brain tumour in adults and is very hard to treat. But giving a longer and better quality of life is something Auckland researcher Zoe Woolf is passionately working towards.

Having seen her aunt’s battle with cancer rob her of her quality of life months after detection, Zoe is striving to improve outcomes for GBM patients and is making significant in-roads early in her career.

“People with GBM have a very poor prognosis – normally the median survival time is about 15 months from diagnosis. This is quite rapid compared to a lot of other types of cancers,” Zoe reveals.

Although she completed her Bachelor degree only recently, Zoe has had early successful findings in her research into immune cells in GBM tumours. “I was quite lucky that I was able to make sound findings early in my studies. It’s all about perseverance, because in science progress can often take years,” 22-year-old Zoe says.

“The gold standard for medical research is to find a cure. However, realistically for people with GBM, currently it is more about prolonging patient life, and their quality of life. In time, I definitely want to be able to go further with looking for a cure. I have Auckland Medical Research Foundation funding for three years to carry out this research, which holds a strong personal connection to me because of my aunt.”

Zoe was about 10 when her aunt Anna was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma that metastasised to her brain. There was little hope for treatment and she passed away two years later.

“Seeing a relative go through something like that definitely brings a huge personal connection to research.”

Zoe’s work looks at two types of immune cells that should help fight GBM.

Zoe’s work looks at two types of immune cells that should help fight GBM - microglia and tumour-associated macrophages (TAMs). Some literature documented that microglia may be the good cells and TAMs the bad.

“These tumour cells are able to manipulate other cells around them into helping the tumour survive. They hijack and influence these other cell types to help themselves divide, grow and spread throughout the brain,” Zoe says.

“The major obstacle has been in the inability to differentiate these two cell types. However, we have been able to show that the normal population of immune cells in healthy brain tissue is comprised of predominantly microglia. Brain tumours such as GBM, are comprised less of microglia, and around 80 percent of TAMs.

“We want to investigate the two populations separately to see how these cells migrate, how they move through a tumour, how they eat other cells to get rid of them.”

Based at the School of Medicine at Auckland University, Zoe and her team collaborates with the Centre for Brain Research and Auckland Hospital, receiving biopsies from patients undergoing brain surgery.

“We are honoured to be able to work with tissue from human patients, you know this is someone’s family that’s going through the same thing as we did. It really humbles everyone, and gives us a lot of drive, and motivates us to research,” she says.

“We get the tissue from these patients, and we grow human microglia in a dish. I don’t believe there are many labs around the world that have this resource. The fact that these cells are an exact match to what’s actually in the brain is an extremely valuable resource for research.”

Zoe intended to be a doctor and was studying bioscience at Auckland University – however a lecture by renowned neuroscientist Professor Richard Faull sparked her interest in neurological research. With support from the AMRF’s generous donors, she was awarded a Helen Goodwin Doctoral Scholarship in 2018, providing a springboard for her research.

“The scholarship is amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do a PhD without the AMRF funding. It’s promising to see progress so early in my PhD, and I’m happy with how I’m going. I’m working towards treatments, and while a cure is a bit off in the distance, that’s definitely somewhere I want to get in the future.”

AMRF Executive Director Sue Brewster praised Zoe as a very worthy recipient of the inaugural Helen Goodwin Doctoral Scholarship, adding that doctoral scholarships are vital in helping young researchers progress and prosper in their studies.

“The Gooduck Charitable Trust wanted to be able to make a critical difference in an emerging researcher’s career. Helen Goodwin, the founder of the Trust, has a life-long interest in education and also appreciates the importance and scarcity of funding for medical research in New Zealand.

“We’re so pleased Helen has chosen to partner with AMRF to support young and promising researchers at such important stages of their research career.”

Public donations are vital to this work – you can help fund medical research. Go to medicalresearch.org.nz to make a difference.

Andrew McDaid, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland’s Engineering Faculty, with his 'wearable robot'.

Stroke of genius – how robots may help stroke patients walk without a limp

While most of his fellow engineering students were focussing on manufacturing industries, Andrew McDaid wanted to find ways to use his mechanical nous for patient treatment, and he may now be on the cusp of transforming the lives of stroke victims.

Andrew, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland’s Engineering Faculty, has created a “wearable robot” to help people recover from a stroke and regain their independence. 

“Most of my colleagues in engineering went to work on robotics for manufacturing and traditional fields. I wanted to do something that directly helps people who need it most and has a positive impact on their lives,” he says.

Andrew collaborated with the University’s Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences to identify how best to help patients recover from a stroke. Andrew and his team designed the Re-Link Trainer (RLT) in partnership with a multidisciplinary team that included a neuroscientist, clinicians and physiotherapists.

“Walking is one of the most important capabilities people want to regain after a stroke. It’s what makes them be able to get out and do things and be independent. With continued gait issues, people will get out less, feel isolated and deteriorate quickly.”

Instead of trying to rehabilitate someone to fix a bad walking pattern, the RLT is designed to prevent them from acquiring a bad gait after their injury.

“Imagine a Zimmer frame with a robotic attachment that connects to your leg and puts it in the correct walking pattern. You take a step with your good leg and then the robot will guide you to take another step with your impaired leg but it does it in a proper movement rather than a limp.”

Andrew McDaid: 'AMRF kickstarted my career'

Getting the RLT to a stage where physiotherapists are using it in hospital trials has been an organic process, Andrew says.

“Over a few years we brainstormed different ideas. What we got out of it is something that’s truly novel. We looked at the practicalities of physios using complex robotic devices, their training requirements and costs. As a result we’ve designed a device that is purely mechanical.”

He credits much of his success thus far to funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF).

“I applied to the AMRF for funding to take the original work we’d done from the engineering side and translate it across into clinical trials with chronic and acute patients.

“It kickstarted my research career. I was a young researcher and I was able to prove myself through that grant. Completing that project successfully gave me the track record to get funding from the Health Research Council to do clinical trials with the next version of the device. Without AMRF I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

Andrew is working on further clinical trials to demonstrate the effectiveness of the RLT to improve patient outcomes and reduce rehabilitation costs, so it can become part of standard care. There is also potential for it to be used for children with cerebral palsy.

Sue Brewster, Executive Director of AMRF, says it is important to support emerging researchers across the spectrum of medical and health sciences.

“We know our donors will be proud to have been instrumental in Andrew’s work, and to have been able to catalysts in helping him leverage other funding for this vital project.”

Public donations are vital to this work – you can help fund medical research. Go to medicalresearch.org.nz to make a difference.

Dr Ghader Bashiri is researching antimicrobial restistance.

Could NZ help find a much-needed new antibiotic?

Antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing public health issues of modern times. Antibiotics are needed to combat bacterial infections, but an increasing number of bacteria are surviving treatment with our current antibiotics, leading to the emergence of ‘superbugs’ that are difficult or impossible to treat. Every year 700,000 people worldwide die of resistant infections.

“New antibiotics are desperately needed around the world. Studies have estimated if we don’t do anything about antimicrobial resistance, by 2050, 10 million people will be at risk every year – at a cumulative cost of $100 trillion. So the numbers are scary,” Dr Ghader Bashiri, an Auckland Medical Research Foundation-funded researcher, reveals.

“Resistant infections are difficult to treat, and require costly and sometimes toxic medications. Despite the urgent demand for new antibiotics, the antibiotic pipeline has failed to keep pace with the escalation of drug-resistance, with only nine new antibiotics approved between 2005 and 2014.”

Ghader’s research is focused on finding new targets and processes in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. This highly collaborative project brings together a team of talented researchers from Auckland University, Auckland Hospital and a Chinese research group, with the aim of developing an effective technology to produce large quantities of a newly-discovered compound that shows promising antibacterial properties.

“We can show that this antibiotic outperforms current ‘last resort’ antibiotics, however the amount that we can get from its natural source is very limited. The next step is to establish an innovative technology to produce these on a larger scale,” the biochemist from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland says.

He believes this work will be of global interest, given the production of new antibiotics is urgently required.

“New Zealand, just like any other country, is also at risk. The use and misuse of antimicrobial medicines, as well as international travel and trade, are the key drivers in the spread of resistance, leading to the increased morbidity and mortality in our community. That’s why we believe working on new generations of antibiotics is incredibly important.”

Ghader has funding for two years from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF), an investment that was integral to progressing his work.

“We want to use pioneering methods to produce this antibiotic in the lab, that we hope will lead to creating a large number of antibiotics from this particular family. We have already proved that these work. The funding that we’ve obtained through AMRF is crucial to establish our cutting-edge methodologies.”

The antibiotic that the team has identified is produced by bacteria in soil, that  “produces compounds that could kill other bacteria but not themselves,” Ghader says. “There are millions of bacteria living there, competing against each other for the nutrients, and whatever they might need.”

In addition, the funding from the AMRF helps Ghader train the next generation of scientists in New Zealand.

“Training and keeping talented young scientists in New Zealand is a priority for me; keeping our hard working and innovative research thinkers here, retaining their amazing ideas and dedication to benefit New Zealand.”

Public donations are vital to this work – you can help fund medical research. Go to medicalresearch.org.nz to make a difference.

The $2 treatment that may prevent brain damage in newborns

Dr Jane Alsweiler.

Could something so simple, and so affordable, help prevent newborn babies getting low blood sugar levels, leading to a high risk of brain damage?

New Zealand research led to the global practice of giving babies a $2 sugar gel, rubbed into the inside of their cheek, to improve their blood sugar levels – reducing the need to be admitted into NICU for an intravenous drip in the baby’s hand, separating mum and baby during an important bonding time.

But could a sugar gel be used not only as a treatment, but also a preventative? That is the question Auckland researcher and neonatologist at Auckland City Hospital, Dr Jane Alsweiler is trying to answer.

“With funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation, we have been trialing giving dextrose gel at an hour of age to try to prevent babies’ blood sugar going low,” Jane explains. “If your sugar goes too low for too long a period of time in that first 48 hours, it can cause permanent brain damage. Sugar is really important for the brain. That’s where it gets its energy from.”

Approximately a third of all babies are at risk of low blood sugar levels – especially those that are born to a mum with diabetes, or if they are born preterm/small for gestational age or born large for gestational age.

Newborn babies at risk were given a dose of sugar gel at one hour of age to try to stop their blood sugar from becoming low and then had their blood sugar tested at two hours of age. The trial found that sugar gel reduced the number of babies who had low blood sugar levels.

“We are now following these children up at two years of age to find out if the sugar gel improved their brain development,” Jane explains.

AMRF also funded the ongoing CHYLD Study, that aims to ascertain the long-term impact of mildly low blood sugars for short periods.

“We know that having really low sugars for a long period of time is bad for your brain, we’re not sure yet if having a mildly low blood sugar for a short period of time has long term effects on the brain,” Jane says.

A follow up study at age four and a half found children who had low blood sugar levels as babies were more likely to have poor executive function and visual/ motor co-ordination.

“Both of which are important for doing well at school,” Jane says, “so now we’re assessing these children again at nine years of age. The whole idea of what we’re trying to do is to improve children’s long-term development.”

This extensive suite of research projects and clinical trials has been co-funded by the AMRF, through scholarships, fellowships and project grants, over many years, and Jane’s work has been regularly supported by the Foundation.

“The reason that I’m in academia is because the ARMF awarded me the prestigious Ruth Spencer Medical Research Fellowship in 2005, to undertake my PhD on high blood sugar levels in very preterm babies. I wouldn’t have been able to do my PhD and become a medical academic without that fellowship.”

Sue Brewster, Chief Executive of AMRF, acknowledges areas of research require financial support.

“The AMRF is proud to have been integral to years of research in this area, and our generous donors have played a fundamental part in enabling ground-breaking discoveries that are having such a positive impact on children’s lives and their grateful families.”

Michelle O’Brien's newborn received the sugar gel just after he was born.

Life’s sweet for big boy Zach

Throughout the later stages of her pregnancy, Michelle O’Brien was often told to prepare for a big baby.

Her first child, Chloe, was born weighing 4.07kg, and indications were that her second baby could be even bigger.

This meant Michelle’s second baby met the criteria for Jane Alsweiler’s clinical trial - using dextrose gel as a preventative measure against hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels) - in newborns.

“It was explained to me that low blood sugars can cause brain damage and that treatment could include the baby needing to go into intensive care. When my big baby Zach was born at 4.47kg, he qualified to be part of the trial, and I knew it was a good thing to do.”

A small amount of dextrose gel was rubbed into Zach’s gum shortly after he was born – even without leaving his mother’s arms.

“Those first few hours are so important for mums and babies for their bonding, and to think there was a simple and painless procedure that could mean I had more time with my baby boy is fantastic,” Michelle says.

“I am grateful we could be part of the trial – rather than having to risk Zach being admitted into NICU for treatment if his blood sugar levels were low.

“And it is a really nice feeling that hopefully we have contributed to helping mums and babies down the track.

“I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have that time, but I was grateful we were not separated. The treatment was simple, I wasn’t anxious. And even at that very young age he was playing a part in medical treatment. That’s very special to me and my family.”

How you can make a life-changing difference

Donations are vital to help the Auckland Medical Research Foundation fund life-changing medical research – and 100% of your donation goes directly into research.

Finish the financial year on a high by making a tax-deductible donation to help make a difference in the future of New Zealand’s health outcomes.

Generous donors have supported medical research for 65 years, through the AMRF. From a one-off gift or a sustained regular contribution or a bequest in a will from someone who wants to leave a legacy, donors choose how they best like to support research.

“The Foundation exists to improve health outcomes, through supporting research and researchers in Auckland. Every single cent, every single dollar, goes directly into that research happening right here, right now,” Sue Brewster, Executive Director of AMRF, says.

The demand for funding support has never been greater, and we ensure we invest in a wide range of research affecting people of all ages, here in New Zealand, with the potential to put this country on the world stage.”

Please help fund the search for ways to improve people’s quality of life. Your support is invaluable in helping to make life-changing improvements in the field of medicine and health.

Please donate now, directly via your banking app into 02-0160-0012991-00 or securely on the AMRF website.

By post: Make your cheque out to: Auckland Medical Research Foundation, and post it to PO Box 110139, Auckland Hospital, Auckland 1148

Visit: www.medicalresearch.org.nz

To speak to us: Call 09 923 1701

Email: amrf@medicalresearch.org.nz