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News and Media
Our latest and archived media releases and news articles.
17 October 2016
We are pleased to announce the appointment of Professor Parry Guilford to the HRC Board.
Professor Guilford is director of the Cancer Genetics Laboratory and the Centre for Translational Cancer Research University at the University of Otago. He is a co-founder of the publically listed biotechnology company Pacific Edge Ltd and a deputy director of the Healthier Lives National Science Challenge.
Professor Guilford's current research interests include the genetics of inherited and sporadic cancers, in particular stomach cancer. Other active research areas are the development of genomic-based diagnostic tools for early cancer detection and personalised medicine.
6 October 2016
Waikato University research fellow Dr Byron Seiuli has been recognised for his significant contribution to supporting Pacific men facing trauma and mental health challenges.
The Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) presented Dr Seiuli, a counsellor of Samoan heritage, with an award as an emerging researcher at a ceremony at Waikato University on Wednesday 5 October 2016.
As part of a HRC Pacific PhD scholarship, Dr Seiuli examined and documented the ways that Samoan men address death and bereavement. The research came about after conversations he had with bereaved Samoan families wanting to support their young men to deal with and express their grief appropriately following the devastating tsunami that struck Samoa in October 2009.
His research revealed that traditional psychological perspectives on grief recovery are overtly clinical and in stark contrast to Samoan and Pasifika mourning patterns. This work has made an important contribution to grief recovery research, one that is culturally relevant and accessible to Samoan men and their families.
Last year Dr Seiuli was awarded a HRC Pacific postdoctoral scholarship where he is continuing his focus on Pacific mental health, this time looking at the attitudes and mental health experiences of adolescent and young adult Pasifika males (18–25 years) when it comes to intimate partner relationships.
HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says Ministry of Health data (1) shows that Pacific people experience a higher rate of mental health conditions than the general New Zealand population, and yet are much less likely to access mental health services.
“Byron’s work adds an important Pacific perspective and voice to the field of trauma counselling and psychology that hasn’t been explored before in New Zealand or elsewhere. His work will help us understand how New Zealand’s mental health services can better serve our Pacific community – particularly Pacific men – and help them cope with mental health issues that may arise in their lives.”
Professor Ross Lawrenson from Waikato University’s Centre for Health Research was also recognised at the ceremony with a HRC established researcher award for his contribution to research excellence.
Professor Lawrenson has led two substantial HRC-funded studies and worked on six other HRC grants over the past seven years.
As a specialist in epidemiology and public health medicine, Professor Lawrenson led a HRC and Ministry of Health-funded study looking at the costs and complications of screening for prostate cancer. This work led to further funding from Janssen-Cilag, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, for three studies on understanding metastatic prostate cancer issues for Māori and non-Māori men.
The research identified that Māori men were 28 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than non-Māori men, yet 52 per cent more likely to die of the disease than non-Māori. It was the first study to show that lower reported prostate cancer incidence rates for Māori men is in fact related to lower PSA screening rates rather than incidence of the cancer.
The findings from this study have fed straight into the National Prostate Cancer Working Group, who are developing prostate cancer care standards for all services to follow.
Professor Lawrenson is currently leading a HRC-funded study to improve outcomes for women with breast cancer in New Zealand using data on 12,500 women from the Waikato and Auckland Breast Cancer Registries.
(1) Ministry of Health (2008). Pacific Peoples and Mental Health: A paper for the Pacific Health and Disability Action Plan review.
For HRC comment:
Professor Kath McPherson
Chief Executive, Health Research Council of New Zealand
Phone: (09) 303 5204 | Mobile: 021 706 766
3 October 2016
A new study will test a novel technology for assessing the removal of pathogens in New Zealand’s drinking water filtration systems in the hope of preventing outbreaks of gastroenteritis.
Christchurch-based researcher Dr Liping Pang from ESR (the Institute of Environmental Science & Research) has received $1.06 million in project funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to lead the study with a team that includes scientists from the University of Otago and NIWA, and end-users from Canterbury District Health Board and Invercargill City Council.
Dr Pang’s team will test novel “surrogate” particles that have been modified to mimic the physical and chemical properties of specific pathogens. The particles will be tagged with unique DNA markers or dye to help assess the effectiveness of filters to remove certain pathogens from drinking water supplies.
The new study will target protozoa such as Cryptosporidium and viruses like rotavirus, adenovirus and norovirus – the most frequently detected pathogens in surface waters in New Zealand and overseas.
A previous study estimated that each year about 35,000 New Zealanders succumb to gastroenteritis caused by waterborne pathogens lurking in our networked drinking water supplies. That figure jumps to about 93,000 New Zealanders if non-networked systems are included.
Dr Pang says that because testing for pathogens is expensive, labour intensive, and often impractical, the current tools for assessing the removal of pathogens from New Zealand’s water supplies are limited to testing turbidity (i.e., the cloudiness of water) for protozoa, and E.coli for bacteria. However, she says protozoa can break through treatment filters even when turbidity levels meet the guidelines, and the absence of E.coli (an indicator of faecal contamination) is no guarantee that there are no viruses present.
“We will trial our simple, harmless, and inexpensive surrogate testing system at a pilot-scale drinking water treatment plant in Invercargill that uses rapid sand filtration - the most common filtering method for protozoan removal in New Zealand. We will also test virus removal in point-of-use filtration systems, commonly used in rural settings, which filter water at the actual ‘point’ where it is being used,” says Dr Pang.
“Our findings will directly benefit the 1.95 million New Zealanders that use networked drinking water supplies with rapid sand filtration and hundreds of thousands of rural populations that use domestic point-of-use filtration systems.”
HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says the outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North is a reminder of just how important it is to invest in research and technology that can help safeguard our communities’ water supplies, especially with the expansion of human activities.
“The pathogens under investigation in this study pose serious public health concerns due to their extremely high infection risk, prolonged survival, and resistance to chlorination. Dr Pang’s research will help water suppliers and communities improve their practices to ensure the safety of our drinking water supplies and reduce the significant health and economic burden of gastroenteritis,” says Professor McPherson.
Dr Liping Pang
ESR Institute of Environmental Science & Research
Phone: 0800 ESR MEDIA (0800 377 633)
For HRC comment:
Professor Kathryn McPherson
Chief Executive, Health Research Council of New Zealand
Phone: (09) 303 5204 | Mob: 021 706 766
20 September 2016
A topical cream containing antibiotics that is widely used for treating skin infections caused by staphylococcal (‘staph’) bacteria could have perversely contributed to New Zealand’s soaring rate of staph skin infections.
Fusidic acid is currently recommended as a first-line treatment for skin infections such as school sores (impetigo), the most common cause of which is the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).
However, a Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC)-funded study led by clinical microbiologist Dr Deborah Williamson has found high levels of fusidic acid resistance in S. aureus skin infections in New Zealand.
Dr Williamson says there has been a significant increase in the number of S. aureus infections in New Zealand over the past decade, with Māori and Pacific children particularly affected. New Zealand has a higher incidence of S. aureus infections than anywhere else in the developed world.
“The increase that we’ve seen in the incidence of serious skin infections in New Zealand children has happened at the same time as an increase in the dispensing of topical fusidic acid to treat skin infections,” says Dr Williamson.
“Coupled with this increased use of topical fusidic acid, we have also found a marked increase in fusidic acid resistance in S. aureus, both in Auckland and in a collection of S. aureus samples that were taken from around New Zealand. Since 1999 when we first measured this, fusidic acid resistance in New Zealand has almost doubled to approximately 30 per cent – that’s one of the highest rates in the developed world.”
Dr Williamson, who carried out this study for her PhD as part of a HRC Clinical Research Training Fellowship at the University of Auckland, is now Deputy Director of the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit – Public Health Laboratory at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
She says in the face of such high levels of resistance it is “highly questionable whether fusidic acid should continue to be recommended as a first-line topical agent for school sores”.
In addition to urgent regulatory interventions on the use of fusidic acid in New Zealand, Dr Williamson says clinical trials are needed to assess the effectiveness of alternative compounds, such as antiseptic agents, in treating school sores.
“Some people think that topical antibiotic creams aren’t as big an issue when it comes to antibiotic resistance as antibiotics in tablet form because you apply it to the skin, but these topical antibiotics kill or inhibit bacteria in the same way as tablets. We have extremely strong evidence now to show that New Zealand needs to take a hard line on the use of topical antibiotics,” says Dr Williamson.
HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says this important study is a stark example of how well-intentioned responses to a significant public health problem – such as prescribing antibacterial agents at high rates to counter an epidemic of S. aureus skin infections in New Zealand – can have major unintended consequences.
“Antibacterial resistance threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi. The recent final ruling by the FDA in the US to ban the marketing of antibiotic hand and body wash products that contain certain specific antibacterial ingredients shows just how seriously we need to treat this very real threat to global public health,” says Professor McPherson.
As a result of her work on this HRC-funded study, Dr Williamson has received a Mardsen Fund grant with Professor Gregory Cook (University of Otago, Dunedin) to research how antiseptics can influence antibiotic resistance, and potentially identify ways to limit the spread of resistant S. aureus.