Picking the ideal treatment for people with schizophrenia – new project funded in the CBR

Patients with schizophrenia could soon be prescribed tailored drugs for their biology, as a new project gets underway in the Centre for Brain Research. Funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation has enabled promising Research Fellow Dr Valerie Anderson to undertake the research.

Standard medications are not affective in approximately a third of people with schizophrenia, and these patients are considered ‘treatment-resistant’. Alternative medication and combinations of antipsychotics must be used, but these medications have a greater risk of inducing serious side effects and therefore are avoided where possible. Consequently, people with treatment-resistant schizophrenia often experience many years of unsuccessful therapy with standard medications before alternatives are prescribed, during which time their symptoms severely affect daily living and have a significant impact on long-term outcomes.

 The Psychopharmacology team will now investigate whether they can identify measurable biological characteristics (biomarkers) that could be used to predict whether people with schizophrenia will be treatment-resistant. Brain magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography, and neuropsychological data will be collected and analysed to investigate the structure and function of the brain in people with schizophrenia who are treatment-resistant, and the findings compared to people with schizophrenia who respond well to standard medications and normal subjects.

 Identification of reliable biomarkers to predict treatment-resistant schizophrenia would enable alternative medications to be prescribed earlier in the disease course. This will ultimately minimise the time that these patients experience debilitating symptoms, leading to improved outcomes for them, and reducing the burden on their families and health care providers.

 The Auckland Medical Research Foundation has also funded two new PhD scholarships at the Centre for Brain Research. Foundation Executive Director Kim McWilliams says: “Many of these researchers already have and will go on to become leaders and internationally recognised in their particular discipline or field of medicine.”

 Projects:

Biomarkers for treatment resistant schizophrenia ($179,267 – two years)
Dr Valerie Anderson, Psychopharmacology and Neurodynamics

 
 
Preterm stem cell therapy (Doctoral Scholarship $122,000 – three years)
Miss Lotte van den Heuij, Fetal Physiology

Visual brain plasticity in adult humans (Doctoral Scholarship $122,000 – three years)
Mr Victor Borges, Visual Neuroscience Group

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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.

Freemasons fund new drug discovery programme

A world-leading drug discovery programme is being developed at the Centre for Brain Research, thanks to a donation from the Freemasons of New Zealand.

 The generous gift of $248,000 will enable the development of new drugs for neurodegenerative disorders. The funding brings together an expert scientific team, including medicinal chemists led by Professor Margaret Brimble from the School of Chemical Sciences and neuropharmacologists working in the CBR Biobank.

 New drug compounds will be developed by synthetic chemist DrAmanda Heapy, who has been awarded the Freemasons fellowship for this work. The team has a unique library of 2000 bioactive natural products. These novel compounds will be tested directly on human tissues in the Biobank, to speed up the drug development process.

 Dr Heapy says: “Collaboration is key. With medicinal chemistry we need constant feedback from biologists about what direction to go and we hope to provide a more tailored service to the pharmacologists which will fast track the search for novel compounds. The Centre for Brain Research has the Biobank, facilities and all the procedures set up for us to do this, whilst the chemists have the compound library. Thus, working closely is a huge competitive advantage — having discussions in person and bouncing ideas off one another.

 David Mace is the Chairman of the Freemasons Roskill Foundation, and says: “The Freemasons are delighted to announce the funding of this fellowship to continue the valuable work by New Zealand researchers at the forefront of global investigation.”

A Memorandum of Understanding was also signed by Vice Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon and the Grand Master of the Freemasons on 25th November, to celebrate the ongoing collaboration and support between the Freemasons and University research.

CBR Aotearoa Fellows Announced

The CBR is pleased to announce the appointment of the two new Aotearoa Foundation Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellows at the Centre for Brain Research. Dr Gjurgjica Badzakova-Trajkov and Dr James Coxon will take up the posts in the near future.

The new fellowships are a generous gift from Julian Robertson’s Aotearoa Foundation in New York. They aim to support development of the Centre’s strategic initiatives, to help foster future research leaders here in New Zealand, and to progress world-class neuroscience research across the Centre for Brain Research. With a large number of excellent candidates, appointing the fellows was an extremely difficult and challenging task for the selection panel.


Dr Gjurgjica Badzakova completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Auckland in 2008, and is completing a Diploma of Clinical Psychology.  She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow with Professor Corballis in the Department of Psychology.  She will work in the laboratory of Dr Lynette Tippett, along with Dr Suzanne Barker-Collo, Professor Mike Corballis and Professor Rob Kydd. Her project involves using Diffusion Tensor Imaging to examine white matter nerve tracts in patients who have had a Traumatic Brain Injury.

Dr James Coxon was a Bright Futures Doctoral Scholar and completed his PhD in 2007 at the University of Auckland.  He holds a post-doctoral fellowship in the Research Centre for Movement Control and Neuroplasticity at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.  When he returns to New Zealand he will work in the laboratory of Professor Winston Byblow, along with Professor Greg Anson, Dr James Stinear and Dr Nick Gant. His project will use Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to examine whether exercise can protect against neurodegeneration with aging.

We congratulate these two inaugural Aotearoa Fellows and look forward to welcoming them to the CBR.

There is one more Fellowship to appoint in 2012, and further announcements will made early in the year.

Aotearoa Foundation Neuroscience Research Fellowship

Two positions available at the Centre for Brain Research

For more information and how to apply, please visit http://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/faculty/cbr/opportunities/postdoctoral.aspx

  •  Job Role: Neuroscience
  •  Job Hours: Full-Time, three-year fixed-term
  • Sector: Academic
  • Location: Auckland, New Zealand
  • Company: The University of Auckland, Centre for Brain Research
  • Salary: $70,000 – $84,000 plus negotiated working expenses and travel
  • Job reference: 13064

• Two well funded prestigious research roles
• Seeking leading research fellows, up to six years post-PhD
• Work with multi-disciplinary research team based at the Centre for Brain Research

For more information, visit the Research Fellow website.