Cutting-edge medical and health research awarded $6.5m

How supposedly colourblind octopuses are expert at camouflage and a circadian clock in the eye are just two of seven projects within the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences to attract funding from Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden.

The Marsden fund is administered by the Royal Society Te Apārangi and supports innovative research. In total, the faculty has been awarded $6,506,000, an increase from last year.

The University of Auckland Dean of Medical and Health Sciences Professor John Fraser congratulates successful applicants.

“I am delighted to see the breadth and depth of the projects funded, all with potential to generate significant benefits to people’s health and wellbeing. It’s a reflection of the exceptional quality of research carried out in the faculty,” he says.

Newly-funded projects all received Standard category grants and range from genetics, optometry and physiology to the politics of gender, leadership and ethnic minorities.

Senior Lecturer Dr Misha Vorobyev (School of Optometry and Vision Science) is awarded $960,000 to unravel the mystery of colour vision in octopuses. The enigmatic sea creatures have a remarkable ability to blend into their surrounds, flicking between smooth and spikey and changing skin colour and in a fraction of a second, but they have only one visual pigment in their eyes, which in theory should make them colourblind. Dr Vorobyev and his team will carry out a series of experiments to determine exactly how octopuses distinguish colour and texture – is it through light refraction, brightness, or polarisation?

Neurons (brain cells) are surrounded by proteins and sugars that control normal brain development. Associate Professor Justin Dean (Department of Physiology) will use his $959,000 grant to investigate whether the abnormal breakdown of one of the sugars, hyaluronan, could impair brain growth and lead to neurodevelopmental disorders. This could open a new avenue for drug therapies.

Professor Peter Shepherd (Maurice Wilkins Centre, with Research Fellow Kate Lee in the Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology, and Debbie Hay, Head of the School of Biological Sciences), is awarded $959,000 to investigate how a gene variant found in approximately one in six Māori and Pacific people increases blood pressure and potentially contributes to the high rates of hypertension in these groups. The gene variant is almost entirely absent in other ethnicities. Again, understanding underlying genetic causes could give rise to future therapies.

The main energy source for heart cells is fats, but under metabolic stress conditions, such as fasting or diabetes, the heart also stores a sugar reserve usually found in muscles and the liver, called glycogen. Senior Lecturer Dr Kimberley (Kim) Mellor (Department of Physiology) and her team will use their $952,000 grant to tease out the mechanisms behind glycogen build-up in the heart and to determine whether it’s a help or hindrance to heart health.

Heart health and its link to brain health is the focus of a project led by Associate Professor James Fisher (Department of Physiology). People who have the common heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation are also at increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, but scientists don’t fully understand why. Dr Fisher suspects that atrial fibrillation may impair the ability of blood vessels in the brain to dilate (widen) in order to supply extra oxygen and nutrients to, and clear away toxic waste products from, active neurons, and that this may damage the neurons over time. With his $938,000 Marsden grant, he and his team will test this hypothesis using advanced MRI techniques. They will also investigate whether using an oral nitric oxide supplement or restoring the heart’s normal rhythm could repair this crucial dilation function.

Disruptions of circadian rhythms are linked to a number of age-related diseases, including those in the eye. The laboratory of Senior Research Fellow Dr Julie Lim (Department of Physiology) has shown that the lens contains circadian clock proteins. With her $896,000 Marsden grant, Dr Lim and her team will test their hypothesis that this circadian clock enables the lens to change levels of protective antioxidants across the day in response to fluctuating levels of damaging UV light. If it does, then it is possible that a malfunctioning clock could lead to the depletion of a particular antioxidant, glutathione, which is known to be an early factor in cataract development. This new knowledge will inform future approaches to combat age-related eye diseases.

Ethnic minority women New Zealanders – defined as non-Pākeha, non-Māori and non-Pacific – have been involved in politics since the time of Kate Sheppard, and remain active at all levels today, at a time when ethnic minority women are emerging as the new face of radical politics in several Anglo-European democracies. Yet, they are invisible in both academic research and the public imagination. Associate Professor Rachel Simon-Kumar (School of Population Health) and Professor Priya Kurian (University of Waikato), both ethnic women academics, are awarded $842,000 to compile in-depth biographies of significant ethnic women politicians, past and present, in Aotearoa New Zealand. What are the barriers to ethnic women’s participation in politics? How do they navigate the interests of their gender, ethnicity and party? How are they represented in the media?

University-wide, $21.7 million has been awarded across 35 projects under the Fast Start and Standard funding categories. Details of all 2019 Marsden Fund projects, including summaries, can be downloaded from the Royal Society Te Apārangi website.


2019 FMHS Marsden grant recipients 

Dr Misha Vorobyev, $960,000: Colourblind camouflage in octopus

Associate Professor Justin Dean, $959,000: Short and sweet: Does the breakdown of extracellular matrix sugar impair brain development after inflammation?

Professor Peter Shepherd, 959,000: Why does a gene variant specific to Māori and Pacific peoples increase blood pressure

Dr Kimberley Mellor, $952,000: Cardiac glycogen processing: defining a new metabolic pathway in heart health and disease

Dr James Fisher, $938,000: Unravelling a clot-less link between atrial fibrillation and dementia

Dr Julie Lim, $896,000: The tick-tock of the redox clock: shedding new light on the role of the lens in regulating circadian rhythms

Associate Professor Rachel Simon-Kumar, $842,000: Double jeopardy or double advantage? Ethnic women in New Zealand politics

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