Matire Ward
Matire Ward

A Victoria University of Wellington researcher hopes to improve the success of a fertility treatment that’s rarely used in New Zealand but may potentially provide a safer alternative to current artificial reproductive technologies (ART).

Matire Ward of Te Matarahurahu hapū and Te Kotahitanga Marae in Kaikohe has just been granted a Māori Health Research PhD Scholarship, valued at $113,791, in the Health Research Council of New Zealand’s 2019 Career Development Awards. She will be working under the supervision of Dr Janet Pitman, who focuses on factors that make a good egg.

Ward aims to improve the process of in vitro maturation (IVM), in which eggs are retrieved while still at an immature stage and brought to maturity in the laboratory (in vitro). The process differs from conventional in vitro fertilisation (IVF) which utilises medications to bring a patient’s eggs to maturity before they are removed from the ovary.

Ward claims that IVM is safer than conventional IVF as the treatment doesn’t rely on ovarian stimulation which may result in ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (where ovaries become swollen and painful). However, the use of IVM in fertility clinics remains controversial due to the reduced quality of embryos derived from in vitro matured eggs. For this reason, the practice is still rare in New Zealand, with the first baby only conceived in 2013.

"The main issue is that current IVM methods produce lower-quality embryos. We're taking an immature egg from its natural environment and putting it in this foreign environment in the lab," says Ward.

The secret to improving the treatment’s success could be in mimicking, within a Petri dish, the natural physical environment of ovarian follicles in which eggs would normally mature, she says.

As a follicle matures, an area within it fills with fluid, says Ward. The nutrients, including glucose, carbohydrates, hormones, and growth factors present in this fluid are transferred to the egg by its surrounding support cells. This transfer is critical for optimal egg development and maturation.

When cells are cultured in a dish in the lab, these nutrients are provided at concentrations very different to what is found in follicular fluid.

Using cow’s eggs for her investigations, Ward will prepare and test nutrients at concentrations similar to that of follicular fluid. She will then investigate the key molecular and metabolic pathways that are altered when immature eggs are exposed to these nutrients, in order to develop an improved IVM system that produces high-quality embryos.

Ward says refining this therapy may give another treatment option to couples concerned about, or at risk of, hyperstimulation syndrome. 

She also aims to have conversations with Māori about the use of ART and how her research might mitigate commonly-held concerns about fertility treatments. “While Māori opinion on these types of therapies is conservative, it’s of upmost importance to all Māori people that their whakapapa is continued in a way that regards tikanga,” she adds. 

Ward is the first in her family to undertake tertiary education, but says she is quite used to being surrounded by science. "My mum is a science technician and throughout my childhood, I would often accompany her to the laboratory.” 

She says this scholarship will be a foot in the door to get into postdoctoral research involving assisted reproductive technologies in women. “I hope to continue researching in fertility clinics worldwide to expand my research capabilities and then come home to establish myself as a leading reproductive health researcher joining the few Māori women in this research field.” 

Matire Ward is one of 19 researchers to receive a 2019 HRC Māori Health Research Career Development Award. 

Mr Stacey Pene, the HRC’s senior manager of Māori Health Research Investment, says these Awards are key to building capacity and capability within the Māori research workforce. 

“Māori researchers are tackling complex scientific questions and public health issues that will improve Māori health and wellbeing, and benefit New Zealand as a whole. We’re incredibly proud to support researchers who are making a significant contribution to knowledge and a genuine difference to their communities,” he says.

See below for the full list of recipients, and click here for lay summaries.

2019 HRC Māori Health Research Career Development Awards

Māori Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship 

Dr Megan Leask, University of Otago (General Fellowship)

Reducing the burden of Metabolic disease in Māori

24 months, $284,599

Māori Health Research PhD Scholarship

Mrs Sonia Hawkins, The University of Auckland

Racial and ethnic bias among registered nurses

36 months, $128,899

Mrs Marie Jardine, The University of Auckland

Deglutition (Swallowing) in advanced age

24 months, $75,196

Ms Ngahuia Mita, University of Otago

Tairāwhiti waka, Tairāwhiti tangata – Examining Tairāwhiti voyaging philosophies

36 months, $141,364

Ms Emerald Muriwai, The University of Auckland

Nga kaiwhakaako, whakapakari tinana me te hauora hinengaro

36 months, $107,000

Ms Marnie Reinfelds, The University of Auckland

Ka Ora – Exploring the Healing Potential of Birth

36 months, $128,899

Miss Matire Ward, Victoria University of Wellington

The impact of micro-environment composition on oocyte developmental competency

36 months, $113,791

Māori Health Research Masters Scholarship

Mrs Nicola Canter-Burgoyne, Massey University

Māori experience of using CPAP treatment for OSA

24 months, $26,600

Miss Abigail Johnson, University of Otago

Physiological changes to cerebellar Purkinje neurons in Parkinsonian rats

12 months, $30,253

Ms TeWhaawhai Taki, The University of Auckland

Te Tino Rangatiratanga o te Mate Ikura Roro

24 months, $25,190

Māori Health Research Development Grant

Dr Isaac Warbrick, The University of Auckland

Te Maramataka – Improving oranga through environmental matauranga

6 months, $10,000

Māori Health Research Summer Studentship

Miss Manurereau Te Maunga-A-Rongo Allen, University of Otago

Tane Māori access to and perceptions of primary care

10 weeks, $5000

Mr Zaine Akuhata-Huntington, University of Otago

Māori rangatahi suicide – informant perspectives on determinants and solutions

10 weeks, $5000

Te Aomarama Anderson, Te Puawai Tapu Trust

Rights-based approaches to Māori health: A Kaupapa Māori review

10 weeks, $5000

Ms Ellie Baxter, University of Otago

Qualitative analysis of Māori patients' primary health care experiences

10 weeks, $5000

Miss Kathryn Hippolite, University of Otago

Exploring Māori health provider workers’ perspectives of medication challenges

10 weeks, $5000

Miss Rebekah Laurence, Te Puawai Tapu Trust

Māori women and abortion: A Kaupapa Maori review

10 weeks, $5000

Miss Esther Pinfold, University of Otago

Pharmacokinetics of Benzathine Penicillin G in children and young people in NZ

10 weeks, $5000

Ms Maia Tapsell, University of Otago

An environmental scan of Indigenous oral health providers

10 weeks, $5000