Mr Howard Maxwell
Mr Howard Maxwell. Photo credit: Sharron Bennett and the University of Otago

A University of Otago PhD student is doing his bit to curb antibiotic resistance and subsequently reduce the threat of infectious disease among Māori communities.

Howard Maxwell has just been awarded a Māori Health Research PhD Scholarship as part of the Health Research Council’s 2018 career development awards.

His research is centred around microbiology and his passion lies in limiting and reducing the spread of antibiotic resistance – one of the fastest growing health crises in the world.

“Resistance mechanisms have been observed for nearly every antibiotic in our arsenal,” says Maxwell, who adds “we are rapidly approaching a post-antibiotic era where no treatment will exist against seemingly insignificant infections”.

Māori, he says, will be particularly vulnerable if this happens, due to both increased susceptibility to infectious organisms and reliance on antibiotics.

The Ministry of Health has acknowledged that Māori are disproportionately burdened by infectious diseases and that antibiotics are dispensed to a higher proportion of Māori than non-Māori, says Maxwell.

“Preventing the spread of antibiotic resistance will reduce the threat of infectious disease in Māori and result in better health outcomes,” he says.

Maxwell plans to examine the communication processes within bacteria that control the spread of antibiotic resistance genes. He’s particularly interested in quorum sensing (a mechanism by which bacteria communicate) and its relationship to CRISPR-Cas systems (a way in which bacteria arm themselves against invading genetic material).

Before anyone can begin to manipulate these systems, he says, it’s important to understand how their components coordinate and communicate with one another.

It’s a task that’s keeping researchers around the globe busy, and Maxwell is thrilled to be joining their ranks. “CRISPR-Cas is a rapidly developing field and various international groups and companies are already researching its potential for curing genetic disorders,” he says.

Maxwell was first introduced into the research environment last summer, where he conducted a short research project within the Fineran Laboratory at the University of Otago. The $129,900 grant from the HRC will help him build on that work and build his research expertise.

He says his motivation comes partly from being born and raised in the small town of Opotiki in the eastern Bay of Plenty, where his predominantly Māori community is over-represented in poverty and poor health.

He also feels that addressing health issues for Māori requires a diverse approach that not only incorporates public health initiatives, but is partnered by the investigation of fundamental biology.

“I’m both curious and excited in the way that organisms function and interact with each other, people and the environment. This grant is giving me the opportunity to pursue that passion.

“It’s also a good thing for my community – I don’t think many people from Opotiki get this sort of opportunity – I’d like to be one of many to pursue postgraduate education and academia as a way to benefit our community,” he says.

The HRC’s senior manager of Māori Health Research Investment, Stacey Pene, says it’s encouraging to see young researchers driven by the need to benefit their communities and all New Zealanders, especially in areas of rising urgency such as antibiotic resistance.

Howard Maxwell’s grant is one of 17 Māori career development awards announced in the HRC’s latest funding round. See below for the full list of recipients.

2018 HRC Maori health research career development awards

Māori Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship

Dr Belinda Borell, Massey University (Hohua Tutengaehe fellowship)

Privilege and health inequity: the role for Mātauranga Māori

36 months, $354,204

Marama McDonald, University of Waikato (Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie fellowship)

Whakapiki wairua: Study of a Māori mindfulness intervention in a Wharekura

36 months, $356,959

Māori Health Research PhD Scholarship

Ms Hannah Burgess, University of Auckland

Whānau consent: an expression of indigenous rights

36 months, $125,496

Pania Bridge-Comer, University of Auckland

Effects of artificial sweetener in the maternal diet on offspring fertility

36 months, $122,000

Miss Blaise Forrester-Gauntlett, University of Waikato

Using pluripotent stem cells to determine the cellular basis of hearing loss

21 months, $79,303

Dr Wiremu MacFater, University of Auckland

Perioperative local anaesthetic

24 months, $85,830

Mr Howard Maxwell, University of Otago, Dunedin

Does inhibition of quorum sensing increase antibiotic resistance spread?

36 months, $129,900

Māori Health Research Masters Scholarship

Mrs Nari Hann, Massey University

The foster caregiving relationship with newborns who have feeding difficulties

12 months, $25,053

Rangahau Hauora Training Grant

Ms Denise Riini, Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology

Improving Papakainga: Linking health, homes, and toiora

6 months, $11,700

Māori Health Research Development Grant

Dr Mera Penehira, University of Auckland

Hinemoana: Our ocean narratives

6 months, $10,000

Dr Armon James Tamatea, University of Waikato

Māori mental health in New Zealand prisons

6 months, $10,000

Māori Health Research Knowledge Translation Grant

Associate Professor Jonathan Koea, Waitemata District Health Board

Developing a collaboration between rongoā Māori and western medicine

6 months, $5,000

Māori Health Research Summer Studentship

Shania Dudson-Cooney, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi

Māori mental health

10 weeks, $5,000

Mrs Emma Espiner, Hāpai Te Hauora

FASD and the media: an analysis of health promotion messages

10 weeks, $5,000

Mr Tobias Hoeta, University of Otago, Dunedin

Evidence for pain assessment tools sensitive for Māori – a systematic review

10 weeks, $5,000

Ms Tiana Mihaere, University of Otago, Dunedin

Ethnic discrimination prevalence and health associations in NZ youth

10 weeks, $5,000

Miss Frances Toohey, University of Auckland

Literature review for Pae Herenga study

10 weeks, $5,000

Mr Jordan Tewhaiti-Smith, University of Otago, Wellington

Maximising Maori participation for measuring unmet need in secondary healthcare

10 weeks, $5,000