Dream money for neuroscience research

Generous donors have kick-started two exciting new neuroscience projects in the Centre for Brain Research.

The first donation will enable our NeuroDiscovery Unit (formerly called the Integrative Neuroscience Facilities) to appoint a new Technical Manager in 2013. The generous support of $100,000 comes from Dame Jenny Gibbs, a CBR Ambassador and long-time friend of the University of Auckland. Funding has also been boosted by a donation of $50,000 from an anonymous donor via our website.

CBR Director Professor Richard Faull says, “I call this dream money, as it gets these imaginative blue sky projects off the ground. We are just so grateful for this generous support to help fight neurological disease.”

The NeuroDiscovery Unit is led by Associate Professors Bronwen Connor and Nigel Birch and undertakes pre-clinical neuroscience research. The technical manager will organise and run the unit to enable collaboration across the CBR.

A grant of $50,000 from the Freemasons of New Zealand has also supported an imaginative new initiative for Alzheimer’s research led by Professor Russell Snell. This will bring a group of international experts together to plan a worldwide collaborative research programme for the development of a transgenic sheep model for Alzheimer’s disease. This research will be driven from the CBR and involve leading geneticists and Alzheimer’s researchers from the UK, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Promising young brain researcher returns to NZ

Hawkes Bay-born Dr Erin Cawston has been named the 2011 Neurological Foundation Repatriation Fellow. Erin will return from her position as Research Fellow at the Mayo Clinic Arizona next month, in order to further her research into Huntington’s disease at the Centre for Brain Research.

 The Repatriation Fellowship ensures outstanding young researchers who have completed postdoctoral studies overseas can return home and continue to develop their research careers in their specialist area. Dr Cawston says “I am incredibly grateful to the Neurological Foundation for this Repatriation Fellowship allowing me to come home to New Zealand. I look forward to working with Associate Professor Michelle Glass and Professor Mike Dragunow on such an exciting project as well as being back amongst the New Zealand scientific community.” Dr Cawston begins her Fellowship at The University of Auckland in February.

 Alongside this exciting research, the Neurological Foundation has also funded a number of exciting new research projects at the CBR.

 Optimising a novel induced neural precursor-like cell line Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Centre for Brain Research University of Auckland, $136,862 

 The generation of ‘embryonic-like’ stem cells from adult human skin was first demonstrated in 2007. This project will advance this capability by directly generating immature brain cells (neural precursor cells) from adult human skin. Of major significance is that this will avoid the need to generate an intermediate embryonic-like stem cell phase, providing neural precursor cells for therapeutic applications without risk of tumour formation from stem cells. This project provides a unique opportunity to establish a novel technology which is likely to have wide-reaching applications for future research in the areas of neurological disease modeling, drug development, and potentially cell replacement therapy.

 A genetic mechanism underlying late-onset Alzheimer’s disease Professor Russell Snell, School of Biological Sciences University of Auckland, $86,875

 Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating disorder affecting up to 50 per cent of those aged over 80 years old. Despite decades of research and innumerable clinical trials, there are no treatments that prevent or reverse the progression of the disease. There is currently some evidence that patients have a small proportion of brain cells with three copies of chromosome 21 instead of the normal two, leading to an increased production of the toxic protein amyloid-beta peptide. This study aims to confirm this observation, determine the pathological consequences of these cells and look for markers that make these cells different, which may lead to new therapies.

 Immodulation of stroke with risperidone Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland, $11,999

 Stroke is a leading cause of disability in New Zealand and the burden associated with this neurological disorder is increasing. Treatment of stroke represents a large, unmet medical need. Neuroinflammation is an important pathophysiological mechanism involved in stroke and impacts profoundly on the extent of cell loss, as well as injury progression. Neuroinflammation therefore offers an exciting therapeutic target for the treatment of stroke. It has been recently demonstrated that the anti-psychotic drug, risperidone, is effective at reducing neuroinflammation and disease progression in a model of multiple sclerosis. This project will now explore whether the anti-inflammatory properties of risperidone can reduce the progression and severity of stroke. 

 Do BMP antagonists play a role in directing the fate of adult neural progenitor cells following neural cell loss?
Shwetha George, Department of Pharmacology and Clinical Pharmacology, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland, $4,000

 The ability for adult neural stem cells to migrate to areas of brain damage and generate replacement brain cells may provide a unique mechanism by which to develop novel therapeutic strategies for the treatment of brain injury or neurological disease. However, the local environment appears to be critical for directing the final fate of adult stem cells in the damaged brain. This study will investigate whether brain injury alters the expression of a group of compounds known as bone morphogenic protein antagonists to promote adult neural stem cells to form glial rather than neuronal cells. The results of this study will enhance our knowledge as to how stem cells respond to brain cell loss and may assist in the development of novel therapeutic strategies for the treatment of brain injury or disease.

New hope for neurological patients with Health Research Council Funding

Groundbreaking research developing new treatments for neurological disorders has been given the go-ahead with funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC). Over $7 million of grant funding has been awarded to scientists working in the Centre for Brain Research.

The new programmes include $4.46M over five years to Professor Mike Dragunow and his team running the Biobank and Human Brain Bank. Over 100,000 New Zealanders are currently living with neurodegenerative conditions. The rate of Alzheimer’s disease is increasing in New Zealand, and CBR researchers are contributing to the global effort to find more effective treatments to combat this, and other devastating neurological disorders.

Professor Dragunow will work with Professor Richard Faull and other scientists to study the underlying causes and treatments for Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. The world-class team of neuroscientists and chemists has well-developed linkages with neurosurgeons, gerontologists, other clinical groups in the District Health Boards involved in clinical trials, and with NZ Biotech industries. Their goal is to translate lab-based research into therapies for patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.

Other projects funded include a study to determine personalized treatment pathways for stroke patients. Dr Cathy Stinear and her team at the Brain Recovery Clinic will use MRI and other techniques to define the rehabilitation strategy which will work best for each patient. In another project, Professor Laura Bennet’s team will examine whether stem cells can help brain-injured preterm babies. Meanwhile Professor Suzanne Purdy’s speech therapy team will look at therapeutic outcomes from being part of the CeleBRation Choir.

HRC New Programmes:

Professor Michael Dragunow, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 923 6403
Neurodegeneration in the Human Brain – Mechanisms and Therapeutic Targets
60 months, $4,467,504

HRC Projects:

Professor Laura Bennet, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 373 7599 ext 84890
Can Pluripotent Amnion Epithelial Cells help the Injured Preterm Brain?
36 months, $1,154,402

Professor Valery Feigin, AUT University, phone (09) 921 9166
Extension to the Traumatic Brain Injury Burden in New Zealand Study 
14 months, $345,465

Dr Cathy Stinear, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 923 3779 ext 83779
TRIO: Targeted Rehabilitation, Improved Outcomes
36 months, $1,126,268

HRC Feasibility Study Grants:

Professor Suzanne Purdy, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 373 7599 ext 82073
SPICCATO: Stroke and Parkinson’s Community Choir Engagement and Therapeutic Outcomes
12 months, $149,986