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News and Media
Our latest and archived media releases and news articles.
5 December 2016
New Zealand researchers have uncovered a new mechanism that controls the release of the hormone insulin in the body, providing hope for those with a genetic susceptibility to type 2 diabetes.
The findings, which were published today in The Journal of Biological Chemistry1, show for the first time that a protein known as beta-catenin is crucial for controlling the release of insulin from the pancreas to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
In type 2 diabetes, either the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or the cells in the body don’t recognise the insulin that is present, leading to high levels of glucose in the blood.
University of Auckland lead researcher Professor Peter Shepherd and his team, including Dr Brie Sorrenson, carried out the study with the support of a $1.2 million project grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC). For this part of the project they focused on a variant in a gene called TCF7L2. This variant has been known to science for about 10 years and is the biggest contributing factor as to whether people are genetically susceptible to getting type 2 diabetes or not.
“We wanted to understand how the gene variants in TCF7L2 affect the regulation of glucose metabolism in the body,” says Professor Shepherd.
“TCF7L2 binds directly to the beta-catenin protein. We found that beta-catenin levels not only change in response to rising and falling nutrient levels, but that they also regulate how much insulin is ready for secretion and ensure that we have the right amount of insulin at the right time. It’s like the volume control mechanism on your phone or TV.”
Scientists have built up a large body of knowledge over the past 15 years about how hormones are released from cells in the body, however, Professor Shepherd says this is the first time beta-catenin has been associated with insulin release mechanisms. One possible reason for this delay is that beta-catenin has in the past been closely associated with cancer, not diabetes.
“Underneath the cell membrane there are layers of fibres called actin. These fibres form networks that somehow bind to the small granules containing insulin. Our evidence suggests that beta-catenin is controlling these networks of actin fibres and rapidly changing their nature by opening up ‘gaps’ in the fibre network to either block or allow the release of insulin.”
Although this paper focuses specifically on type 2 diabetes, the team’s preliminary findings as part of the wider HRC-funded project suggest that the same mechanism also helps control the way insulin functions; the metabolism of glucose in fat cells; and the release of hormones in the brain that control appetite and energy metabolism.
“We think we’ve identified a much broader mechanism that affects multiple cell types, not just beta cells in our pancreas,” says Professor Shepherd.
HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says “we can’t develop new treatments for chronic diseases like diabetes unless we understand the biology behind them, and this is one of the reasons why fundamental scientific research like this is so important.”
“Peter and his team have received significant HRC funding over the years to pursue this line of research. Major outcomes like this highlight the benefits of long-term HRC funding for emerging science in New Zealand. It’s hard work finding new mechanisms that contribute to disease – researchers must go down a lot of blind alleys to find them. However, there’s a very high payoff in the end in terms of enhancing our understanding of disease and developing potential new treatments,” says Professor McPherson.
Between 50 and 60 per cent of people who are susceptible to type 2 diabetes in our current environment have a genetic variant that puts them at higher risk of getting the disease.
“This discovery potentially opens up a whole new drug discovery field to understand how we could manipulate beta-catenin levels to control the release of insulin,” says Professor Shepherd.
1 Sorrenson, B et al. (2016). A Critical Role for β-Catenin in Modulating Levels of Insulin Secretion from β-Cells by Regulating Actin Cytoskeleton and Insulin Vesicle Localization. The Journal of Biological Chemistry, Vol 291.
Hear Professor Shepherd talk about this discovery on Radio Live.
28 November 2016
The HRC has announced $650,000 in funding for four Ngā Kanohi Kitea Māori knowledge and development research grants.
This funding provides an opportunity for iwi, hapū and community groups to investigate a community identified area of Māori health need. It is targeted at groups who have not had significant research funding, but who want to build their capability and knowledge in this area.
The HRC is pleased to support community organisations in leading research driven by their own needs. Because of their unique position, these groups have great potential to make real changes in their communities.
Ngā Kanohi Kitea full project grants (2016)
Dr Tanya Allport, Te Whānau o Waipareira Trust
Kimihia te Hauora Hinengaro: Pathways for Māori mental health
12 months, $59,800
Read lay summary
Mrs Tracey Godfery, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa
Te Ohu Mo Papatuanuku: Contaminated site toolkit for community use
18 months, $200,000
Read lay summary
Ms Erana Hond-Flavell, Te Pou Tiringa Incorporated
Improving child and whānau health outcomes - intervention in early life settings
18 months, $200,000
Read lay summary
Ms Toni Roberts, Te Puna o Ngā Kākano Charitable Trust
He Puna Reo He Puna Oranga Whānau: Impact of urban Puna Reo on health and wellbeing
18 months, $188,970
Read lay summary
25 November 2016
A new, in-depth study of children and teenagers struggling with weight issues highlights their poor eating habits and concerning volumes of sugary drink consumption on a daily basis.
Eating habits such as comfort eating and eating large amounts of food were worryingly common, and the study revealed clear differences in diet between young people living with obesity and national averages.
The 239 tamariki in the study were assessed when they enrolled in a community-based 12-month intervention programme called Whānau Pakari. Aged 4-16, the participants had body mass indexes (BMIs) in the clinically overweight or obese range, and many had weight-related health problems. Māori and Pakeha each made up 45 per cent of the group, with the remaining 10 per cent from other ethnicities.
- Two-thirds (67 per cent) of participants experienced excessive hunger and ate large amounts of food
- Half didn’t feel full after a meal
- Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) reported comfort eating
- Children ate 3.5 servings per day of fruit and vegetables on average, markedly below the recommended five daily servings
- Children were not eating breakfast every day
The study was a collaboration between the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, Taranaki District Health Board, and Sport Taranaki, with funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.
“This study highlighted that there are lots of factors affecting eating behaviour in these children,” says Dr Yvonne Anderson, Liggins Institute researcher, Taranaki paediatrician and co-author of the study.
“As health professionals, when we see children with weight issues, we need to address the psychological dimensions of their eating.”
Researchers also found that many of the children and adolescents were drinking sweet drinks on a daily basis (a median volume of 250ml across the group).
“While an extra 250ml of sweet drinks might not seem much, it means these children are consuming an extra 100kcal a day of free sugar, and it’s been estimated that extra energy intake of not much more than that – 120kcal a day – leads to a 50kg increase in body weight over 10 years,” Dr Anderson says.
“One can of sweet drink contains three day’s worth of the recommended added sugar for young children.
“It’s not just about fizzy drink but all sweet drinks. Many of the children are drinking powdered fruit drinks, and these were the most popular non-dairy beverage in children when this was looked at nationally in 2002. Health policy needs to reflect this.”
Obesity is everyone’s problem, and we’re all part of the solution, she says.
“We all need to work together to address the food and drink children have access to in their everyday lives – at home, school, events, family gatherings - and ensure that the healthy choice is the easy choice. We need to be role models for our children.”
Nationally, an estimated 85,000 children aged 2-14 years are obese, and about 4,500 in Taranaki, according to the New Zealand Health Survey.
Whānau Pakari means “Healthy self-assured whānau who are fully active”. The programme, which is still running, involves regular home visits and support from a multi-disciplinary team of health professionals to help whānau make healthy lifestyle changes.
The study was published in PLOS-ONE Journal.
News article courtesy of the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland
24 November 2016
This is a very difficult time for New Zealanders dealing with the aftermath of the latest earthquakes – especially for those who have lived through the trauma and upheaval of the previous seismic events, and whose lives are still disrupted. The thoughts of the HRC team and the Board are with everyone that has been affected.
When natural disasters occur, researchers are keen to learn from the situation to predict, prevent or ameliorate adverse consequences resulting from future events or guide future responses. However, it is important to remember that research activity in disaster zones carries heightened ethical risk.
As a resource for researchers who wish to work with vulnerable communities, we are posting here the Ethical Guidelines for Post-Disaster Research, produced by The Natural Hazards Social Science Panel. It is also timely to remember clause 20 of the Declaration of Helsinki1 relating to vulnerable populations: “Medical research with a vulnerable group is only justified if the research is responsive to the health needs or priorities of this group and the research cannot be carried out in a non-vulnerable group. In addition, this group should stand to benefit from the knowledge, practices or interventions that result from the research.”
The HRC has supported research relating to the Canterbury earthquakes. In 2011, we partnered with the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation to invest in five projects needed to guide the response to future events, and understand the impact that earthquakes and the subsequent destruction and disruption have on health. A summary of the successful projects can be found here. Key findings from ‘Building community resilience: Learning from the Canterbury earthquakes’ are also provided on our website. In addition, the HRC has supported the Christchurch Health and Development Study to look at the long-term personal impact for Christchurch earthquake victims.
The HRC is reviewing how it might provide timely and responsive funding for research related to public health crises, in ways that best support affected communities. We welcome your feedback.
If you are thinking of undertaking health-related research with communities affected by the earthquakes and would like to talk to someone at the HRC about this, please contact:
Dr Tania Pocock, Group Manager, Research Policy, Strategy and Evaluation
1 WMA Declaration of Helsinki - Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects, World Medical Association, http://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/b3/, accessed 22 Nov 2016.