Back to top anchor
Media Release

Study to develop safer alternative to opioids part of more than $78M allocated to health research

Issue date:
Associate Professor Bronwyn Kivell - photo supplied by Victoria University of Wellington Image Services

Associate Professor Bronwyn Kivell. 
Photo supplied by Victoria University of Wellington Image Services.

A New Zealand-led research team who have developed a suite of non-addictive drug compounds to treat pain have received a funding boost to progress their work through the preclinical development phase.

The team received one of 53 grants announced today by the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) in a $78.92 million funding allocation for new and innovative research into some of New Zealand’s most pressing health concerns.

Associate Professor Bronwyn Kivell from the Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington and her team will use a $1.2 million project grant to find the most effective and safe compound from their novel drug library for treating chronic pain.

The research team will help develop the novel drugs and use innovative technology to ‘map’ pain in the brain and see how the drugs mitigate that pain.

Associate Professor Kivell says one in five adults in New Zealand suffers from chronic pain and half of pain sufferers report little pain relief with current treatments.

“Current pain medications targeting the mu-opioid receptor such as morphine, fentanyl and tramadol are addictive and ineffective at treating chronic pain when used long-term. They can also be lethal, targeting a part of the brain that causes breathing to stop,” says Associate Professor Kivell.

She says misuse of these prescription pain medications can be a gateway to illicit drug use.

“The misuse of these pain medications has contributed to the opioid epidemic, which is killing hundreds of people each day globally, including nearly 50,000 people in the US in 2019 alone. Although rates of opioid use, misuse and abuse are not readily available for the New Zealand population, New Zealand, like the US, has seen a spike in the number of opioid overdose deaths. There is therefore an urgent need to develop safer, more effective pain medication.”

Associate Professor Kivell’s research team have developed novel compounds that target a different receptor system to that of many current pain medications called the kappa-opioid receptor system. This receptor is like a cousin to the mu-opioid receptor that is associated with drugs like morphine.

“Drugs that target the kappa-opioid receptor aren’t as effective at treating acute pain as those drugs that target the mu-opioid receptor, which is why they have been ignored in the past. However, they are more effective than mu-opioids in treating chronic pain, which is often caused by damage to nerves, and critically, they do not have any addictive qualities or lethal side-effects.”

Associate Professor Kivell says the team’s long-term goal is to find a leading drug candidate that they can progress through established commercialisation pathways and eventually into clinical use.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Sunny Collings says there are many far-reaching benefits to developing effective, non-addictive pain medications.

“This exciting research has the potential to significantly improve the quality of life for those New Zealanders suffering from chronic pain and save lives by reducing the misuse of pain medications and associated drug harm.”

The $78.92 million awarded in this HRC funding round includes 4 Programme Grants ($19.99 million in total), five Rangahau Hauora Māori Project Grants ($5.87 million in total), 3 Pacific Project Grants ($3.53 million in total) and 41 General Project Grants ($49.51 million in total).

Professor Collings says this large investment supports outstanding research ideas and innovations that have been explicitly designed with impact and equity in mind.

See below for the full list of all the 2022 HRC Programme Grants, and Project Grants (which include Rangahau Hauora Māori, Pacific Health Research, and General categories). To read lay summaries about any of these research projects, go to and filter by proposal type ‘Programmes’/ ‘Projects’ and year ‘2022’.

2022 Programme Grants

Professor J. Abbott, University of Otago
Reducing the burden of osteoarthritis in Aotearoa New Zealand
60 months, $4,999,268

Professor Alistair Gunn, the University of Auckland
Pathogenesis, detection and treatment of perinatal brain injury
60 months, $4,999,982

Professor Beverley Lawton, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Manaaki Te Iti Kahurangi: Improving outcomes for whānau
60 months, $4,999,905

Professor Lisa Stamp, University of Otago, Christchurch
Strategies to improve gout management in Aotearoa
60 months, $4,998,486

2022 Rangahau Hauora Māori Project Grants

Dr Clive Aspin, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Whānau-centric coronial processes to improve suicide prevention strategies
36 months, $1,192,898

Associate Professor Elana Curtis, the University of Auckland
Mā te mōhio ka mārama (M2M). Impact of COVID-19 on Māori:non-Māori inequities
36 months, $1,197,495

Dr Makarena Dudley, the University of Auckland
He rapunga hauora mō te mate wareware: A prevalence study
36 months, $1,104,373

Dr Tepora Emery, Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology
He Toa Taumata Rau – The many resting places of courage
36 months, $1,184,510

Dr Paula King, University of Otago, Wellington
TIAKI – Community wellbeing for whānau with lived experience of incarceration
36 months, $1,199,536

2022 Pacific Health Project Grants

Dr Fuafiva Fa'alau, the University of Auckland
What does dementia mean for Pacific communities in New Zealand?
36 months, $1,193,620

Dr Sunia Foliaki, Massey University
Advancing palliative care among Pacific children
36 months, $1,148,229

Dr Gerhard Sundborn, the University of Auckland
Is acute rheumatic fever primarily caused by scabies? A case-control study
36 months, $1,189,100

2022 General Project Grants

Professor Wickliffe Abraham, University of Otago
Neuron-glia regulation of plasticity in health and neuroinflammatory diseases

36 months, $1,197,310

Associate Professor Jane Alsweiler, the University of Auckland
Caffeine to improve neurodevelopmental outcomes in infants born late preterm
60 months, $1,439,268

Dr Rosemary Brown, University of Otago
Hormones and mood: Imaging the impact of obesity on maternal neural circuitry
36 months, $1,199,908

Dr Tim Chambers, University of Otago, Wellington
The impact of nitrate in drinking water on preterm birth
36 months, $1,199,508

Professor Stuart Dalziel, the University of Auckland
RCT budesonide-formoterol reliever therapy in moderate/severe childhood asthma
36 months, $1,439,964

Professor Alan Davidson, the University of Auckland
The CALCRL receptor: A new genetic determinant of diabetic kidney disease in NZ
36 months, $1,199,906

Dr Joanne Davidson, the University of Auckland
Is Exendin-4 neuroprotective after perinatal hypoxia-ischaemia?
36 months, $1,199,443

Professor Catherine Day, University of Otago
WNT signalling - a matter of degradation
36 months, $1,199,533

Dr Jack Dummer, University of Otago
Development of rifampicin as a dry powder inhaler for tuberculosis
36 months, $1,086,230

Professor Rod Dunbar, the University of Auckland
Spatial profiling of tumour tissue to improve lung cancer immunotherapy
36 months, $1,200,000

Professor John Fraser, the University of Auckland
A vaccine for Staphylococcus aureus
36 months, $1,199,789

Professor Richard Gearry, University of Otago, Christchurch
Novel biomarker validation to guide treatment in inflammatory bowel disease
36 months, $1,199,994

Dr Jemma Geoghegan, University of Otago
Genomic epidemiology of human respiratory viruses in Aotearoa
36 months, $1,196,858

Professor David Grattan, University of Otago
Hormone-induced adaptations in respiratory function during pregnancy
36 months, $1,199,969

Professor Parry Guilford, University of Otago
A single-cell transcriptomic approach to gastric cancer heterogeneity
36 months, $1,199,413

Professor Jane Harding, the University of Auckland
Early brain development and later outcomes in moderate-late preterm babies
48 months, $1,198,209

Associate Professor Michael Hay, the University of Auckland
Hypoxia-selective delivery of DNA-PK inhibitors to tumours
36 months, $1,199,999

Associate Professor Keith Ireton, University of Otago
Role of polarized exocyosis in infection of host cells by pathogenic E. coli
36 months, $1,199,984

Associate Professor Stephen Jamieson, the University of Auckland
Overcoming antibody-drug
conjugate resistance in HER2-positive breast cancer
36 months, $1,199,994

Associate Professor Peter Jones, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand
ARISE FLUIDS Aotearoa Randomised Controlled Trial
48 months, $1,199,949

Professor Roslyn Kemp, University of Otago
Immune cells, bacteria and epithelium in Crohn's disease patients
36 months, $1,190,405

Associate Professor Bronwyn Kivell, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Development of safe, non-addictive pain medications
36 months, $1,199,999

Dr Sharon Ladyman, University of Otago
Activity of orexigenic AgRP neurons during pregnancy and lactation
48 months, $1,197,681

Dr Hakkan Lai, the University of Auckland
Climate change, heat exposure and child health
36 months, $1,199,999

Dr Rebecca McLean, University of Otago
Whiria te tāngata: Out-of-home mobility of Māori and non-Māori over 65 (NZPATHS)
36 months, $1,198,285

Professor Alexander McLellan, University of Otago
A dual safety system to promote CAR T cell activation and migration
36 months, $1,199,975

Dr Matthew McNeil, University of Otago
Targeting metabolic dysregulation to eradicate drug resistant M. tuberculosis
36 months, $1,199,544

Dr Rory Miller, University of Otago
Evaluating a bedside high-sensitivity troponin within a rural chest pain pathway
36 months, $1,199,642

Associate Professor Brigit Mirfin-Veitch, Donald Beasley Institute
Exploring a twin-track approach to violence elimination for disabled women
24 months, $791,757

Associate Professor Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, the University of Auckland
A randomised controlled trial of a low dose serotonergic agonist for depression
36 months, $1,439,988

Associate Professor David Newcombe, the University of Auckland
The evaluation of treatment outcomes for methamphetamine dependence in Aotearoa
40 months, $1,199,839

Associate Professor Garry Nixon, University of Otago
Understanding the impact of rurality on health outcomes and healthcare delivery
36 months, $1,199,916

Professor Emily Parker, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
New targets for infectious disease - tackling antimicrobial resistance
36 months, $1,200,000

Associate Professor Adam Patterson, the University of Auckland
Targeted immune stimulants to hypersensitize lung cancer to checkpoint blockade
36 months, $1,199,922

Associate Professor Jacqueline Ramke, the University of Auckland
How can we improve eye, hearing and feet-health for kaumātua/older adults?
36 months, $1,200,000

Professor Stephen Robertson, University of Otago
Bringing precision to the diagnosis of complex neurodevelopmental disorders
36 months, $1,199,831

Associate Professor Jeffrey Smaill, the University of Auckland
Critical evaluation of a tumour-targeted cancer therapy for clinical development
36 months, $1,199,489

Professor Denise Taylor, Auckland University of Technology
The nGVS study for bilateral vestibular disorders
36 months, $1,111,603

Associate Professor Logan Walker, University of Otago, Christchurch
Improving genetic health through RNA diagnostics
36 months, $1,190,889

Dr Rachel Webb, the University of Auckland
HCQ4ARF: A randomised trial of Hydroxychloroquine for acute rheumatic fever
48 months, $1,437,916

Associate Professor Christopher Wilkins, Massey University
Regulating retail vaping to support smoking cessation
36 months, $1,199,839