Applications to agriculture and industry

The biology of growth and development is relevant to raising farm animals, as well as to human health. Research discoveries at the Liggins Institute also have applications to the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Research scientist completing a form

Applications in agriculture

In a collaborative research programme, scientists from the Liggins Institute and New Zealand’s largest Crown Research Institute (CRI), AgResearch, have explored aspects of animal biology, such as the way the environment during early development determines how nutrients will be partitioned between growth and energy production throughout life.

A human or animal fetus that has poor nutrition before birth may predict that it will be born into a world where food is scarce. It therefore sets its metabolism to store energy as fat rather than build muscle, which increases the likelihood of obesity in humans and carcass fatness in animals.

Improving our knowledge of these early life processes gives us the chance to influence nutrition during pregnancy, which can have a positive impact on the genes that children and animals are born with.

Programmes like this aim to develop better animal feeds, animal welfare products and practices, and smart ways of handling and processing food products. It will lead to a range of pastoral based foods with human health benefits.

The ultimate goal is to commercialise valuable research data, to benefit local industry and improve economic returns.

Applications for nutrition and food

Liggins Institute research has also led to better understanding of the biological process known as developmental programming. Through this process, factors in an organism’s or individual’s early life environment determine its pathway of development - its health and body composition as an adult. One of the most important of these environmental factors is maternal nutrition.

Developmental programming operates through epigenetic control of gene activity. Our scientists and collaborators have been able to measure chemical changes (methylation) in the promoter region of key genes at the time of birth and correlate them with the likelihood of developing particular diseases later in life.

This discovery shows that it is now possible to measure the risk of developing diseases that are linked to adverse developmental programming. It opens the way for the development of a new generation of predictive diagnostic tests known as prognostics.

We have shown, using experimental models, that it is possible to reverse undesirable developmental programming during the early postnatal period.

Our current focus is to develop intervention strategies using nutrition to treat at-risk babies and infants. We are investigating formulations with mixtures of macro and micro nutrients that are customised to meet the particular nutritional needs of the different target groups.

Recent progress in our nutritional research programme has identified panels of bioactive natural products that function at the epigenetic level to alter developmental programming.

Pharmaceutical applications

Intellectual property resulting from research at the Liggins Institute has been or is being further developed into commercial applications by biotechnology companies. These include potential treatments for brain injury and neurodegeneration and cancer therapeutic targets.

All commercial contracts and relationships are managed through Auckland Uniservices Ltd.