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News and Media
Our latest and archived media releases and news articles.
21 December 2016
Dr Palatasa Havea has been confirmed as the new chair of the HRC Pacific Health Research Committee.
Palatasa has a PhD in food technology from Massey University and is a senior research scientist at Fonterra in Palmerston North. He has invented several technologies at Fonterra that have resulted in the commercialisation of nutritional dairy products (10 patents) aimed at addressing some of the major nutritional and health issues in many parts of the world.
Palatasa, who is of Tongan descent, has been a member of the HRC Pacific Health Research Committee since December 2012. He has also been very active in the New Zealand Pasifika community, serving on a range of boards, committees, and reference groups. He recently stepped down from the Minister of Pacific Island Affairs Advisory Council, where he served for 13 years and chaired for the past three years.
Palatasa takes over the HRC Pacific committee chair role from Dr Mele Taumoepeau. Mele, a senior lecturer at the University of Otago's Psychology Department, has been a HRC Pacific Health Research Committee member since 2000 and served as its chair from 2014 to 2016. She has provided outstanding leadership, expertise and knowledge and will be greatly missed.
The HRC Pacific Health Research Committee also welcomes Dr Ofa Dewes to its team. Ofa is an affiliate investigator of the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery and a research fellow at the School of Nursing, University of Auckland. Her research interests include Pacific ethnic-specific studies across the lifespan, especially in health equity, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and ageing.
Ofa was recently awarded a two-year project grant from the National Science Challenge for 'Ageing Well'. Here she will lead a research team investigating older Pacific people's experiences in palliative care, and the challenges faced by their aiga (family) who carry out the bulk of their care. She will also be a co-researcher on another 'Ageing Well' study led by Auckland University of Technology to understand what factors older Pacific people consider important for their wellbeing.
Ofa is Fiji-born of Rotuman, Tongan, and Tuvaluan ethnicity, with affiliation to Ngati Porou.
14 December 2016
We are pleased to welcome a new member to the HRC's Pacific Health Research Committee, Auckland University of Technology Senior Research Fellow Dr El-Shadan Tautolo.
Dr Tautolo's primary area of research specialisation is the health and well-being of Pacific families and communities in New Zealand. He has a strong association with the HRC, having completed a HRC Pacific PhD Scholarship and a HRC Pacific Postdoctoral Fellowship. Both of these studies focused on how Pacific fathers influence the development of their children.
Dr Tautolo is currently director of the Centre for Pacific Health and Development Research and the Pacific Islands Families (PIF) Study, an ongoing birth cohort study of 1398 Pacific families, based in South Auckland, New Zealand.
Dr Tautolo was born and raised in South Auckland, but has always maintained strong links to his Samoan and Cook Island heritage. He says one of the most rewarding parts of his research is reporting back to Pacific communities and inspiring the next generation through his mentoring work.
13 December 2016
A small segment of the population accounts for a disproportionate share of costly service use across a society’s health care, criminal justice, and social welfare systems – and paediatric tests of brain health can identify these adults as young as age three, new findings out of the University of Otago’s Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study suggest.
The Dunedin Study is an internationally renowned research programme that has followed the progress of 1000 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972-73, from birth to midlife. The latest findings are newly published in the international journal Nature Human Behaviour.
With study members’ permission, the research team analysed government administrative databases and electronic medical records. The team, which included Dunedin Study Director Professor Richie Poulton, found that nearly 80 per cent of adult economic burden can be attributed to just 20 per cent of the study members.
The researchers determined that this “high cost” group accounted for 81 per cent of criminal convictions, 66 per cent of welfare benefits, 78 per cent of prescription fills and 40 per cent of excess obese kilograms.
Professor Poulton says that they also found that members of this group can be identified with high accuracy when still young children.
At age three, each study member took part in a paediatric examination that included a neurological evaluation and assessments of verbal comprehension, language development, motor skills, and social behaviour. Looking back at the test results, the team found that scoring poorly on these tests was a good predictor of going on to be in the “high cost” group.
“We also found that members of this group tended to have grown up in more socioeconomically deprived environments, experienced child maltreatment, scored poorly on childhood IQ tests and exhibited low childhood self-control,” he says.
Professor Poulton says that the strong connection between early-childhood development and costly adult outcomes underscores the need for preventive health and education programmes for children and families.
“Those working in social services have long observed that some individuals use more than their share of services, but this is the first evidence that the same group of individuals feature in multiple service sectors and that they can be identified as young children, with reasonable accuracy,” he says.
In their paper, the researchers write that they “are aware of the potential for misusing these findings, for stigmatising and stereotyping. But there is no merit in blaming a person for economic burden following from childhood disadvantage.”
Instead, tackling the effects of childhood disadvantage through early-years support for families and children could benefit all members of a society by reducing costs.
The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit received funding for the study from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
For the full factsheet about the study, see the University of Otago's website.
News article courtesy of the University of Otago
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.