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Asthma vaccine discovery

7 October 2014

A team of New Zealand researchers has discovered new vaccine technology that can be used to treat asthma and other allergic diseases.

With asthma now affecting up to one in four New Zealand children, the researchers say this is a promising step in the challenge to understand and control asthma.

The experimental approach is one of the newest frontiers in the rapidly advancing field of immunotherapy, which harnesses the body’s own ability to fight diseases.

The research is an extension of work at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research developing vaccines for cancer by Associate Professor Ian Hermans, in collaboration with synthetic chemist Dr Gavin Painter from the Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington where the vaccines are designed and synthesized.

"Cancer and asthma both involve the immune system, but in cancer we are trying to get the body to take notice of tumour proteins, while in asthma, we want to stop it over-reacting to an allergen," says Dr Hermans.

"Allergy is the wrong sort of immune response. Using the vaccine, we have initiated a more appropriate immune response and prevented the allergy from taking hold."

Vaccines work by presenting the body with an antigen, which provokes an immune response. This involves activating T cells, produced by the body's immune system, which are then ready to protect from the disease in the future.

To strengthen the immune response, a chemical called an adjuvant is administered along with the antigen, to make the vaccine more effective.

In the asthma vaccine, the antigen and the adjuvant are chemically linked, rather than simply co-delivered. This novel approach ensures the essential components reached the target cells together and created the most powerful but highly specific immune response that targets the disease.

Dr Herman’s says preparing the linked vaccine required some "pretty clever chemistry".

"By linking them, we make sure they are both delivered to the right place in the body. Once there, they are split and presented to the immune system to initiate a response," he says.

The idea of using a vaccine to prevent asthma was the brainchild of Malaghan Institute Professor Franca Ronchese who explains how the vaccine works.

"In asthma, allergens such as those produced by house dust mites are inhaled and taken up by dendritic cells in airways, causing inflammation and many of the symptoms of asthmatic disease. With the vaccine, we think we can direct other immune cells, the killer T-cells, to go and block the dendritic cells, so they stop sending out the wrong messages. It’s like taking out the generals of the enemy’s army in order to overpower it," she says.

The linked vaccine technology could in principle be applied to other allergic diseases. Patent protection has been obtained and opportunities to commercialise the technology are currently being pursued.

The work was jointly funded the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment of New Zealand.

The paper can be views online at: http://bit.ly/1yGxY0k

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Quality of undergraduate research recognised

29 September 2014

Research by three Victoria University of Wellington undergraduate students has been published in Biotechnology Letters, a highly ranked international peer-reviewed journal.

three ugAs part of a supervised programme of study, Madeleine Parker, Kate Walmsley and Jack Sissons, each in the final year of a Bachelor of Science majoring in biotechnology, worked to develop an efficient system to help scientists artificially evolve enzymes in the lab.

“Directed evolution is a method of enzyme improvement in which a gene is randomly mutated and a large number of gene variants are produced,” says Madeleine. “Testing the slightly different enzymes encoded by these variants requires cloning them into bacterial cells and screening for the desired activity.”

Kate adds that many directed evolution studies expend unnecessary effort testing cells that have not received a gene variant at all. “Our system allows us to produce bacteria where 100 percent of cells contain the gene of interest,” she says.

Jack explains that this allows the team to test the activity of each slightly different enzyme in the most efficient manner possible. “Achieving this is of great value because we don't want to waste time and resources screening bacteria that aren't doing what we want them to.”

The original idea for this work was developed by Victoria PhD graduate Dr Gareth Prosser. Jack, Madeleine and Kate performed the key proof-of-concept experiments to validate Dr Prosser’s idea under the supervision of Dr David Ackerley, Biotechnology Programme Director, and Dr Elsie Williams, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Biological Sciences.

“It is rare for undergraduate research to be published at all, let alone in a well-regarded journal like Biotechnology Letters,” says Dr Ackerley. “Kate, Jack and Madeleine worked hard and intelligently on this project, and really deserve their success.”

The paper can be viewed online here: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10529-014-1673-4

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Pioneer recognised with international award

23 September 2014

Victoria University of Wellington researcher Professor Ken McNatty has been awarded the 2014 Pioneer Award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the understanding of sheep and cattle reproduction.

KenProfessor McNatty’s lifetime achievements earned him the accolade, awarded during the Ninth International Ruminant Reproduction Symposium (IRRS) in Japan last month. Held every four years and recognised as the most prestigious conference of its kind, the IRRS was host to around 170 delegates from 29 countries.

The criteria that form the basis of the Pioneer Award include the development of new knowledge that opened areas of research in ruminant reproduction; development of new technologies that have enabled other investigators to make important contributions; recognition as an international scholar; and a record of contribution to the field.

Ruminants number around 120 species and include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes and camels. Professor McNatty’s work in this area has been with sheep and cattle.

A Victoria University graduate, Professor McNatty returned to his alma mater in 2005 when he was appointed Professor of Biotechnology. He continues to work in the School of Biological Sciences on ruminant and non-ruminant reproduction.

A highly distinguished expert in reproductive biology, Professor McNatty has published more than 250 papers, and a paper of his published in Nature in 2000 has been cited over 700 times.

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All that glitters is not gold: what is the value of mineral deposits in the deep-sea?

22 September 2014

One of the great challenges facing all societies is to achieve a balance between economic growth, sustainability and environmental integrity. This problem can be expressed in several different ways, but striking the balance between factors such as economic development, job creation, sustainability and environmental health is far from easy. Indeed, even within a single category such as economic development it may be hard to balance the counteracting forces of development opportunity in one area (e.g. mining) and lost opportunity in another area (e.g. tourism).

New Zealand is a maritime nation, with an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) totalling about 5.7 million km2. It is an area of complex seafloor topography, characterised by extensive plateaux, rises, basins, plains, deep trenches and seamounts. Because of the region’s very active geological nature, several areas of New Zealand’s EEZ are now of great interest for the mining of seabed minerals. One such area is the Kermadec Volcanic Arc (refer to Figure 1), which is a line of active and inactive submarine volcanoes extending from shallow-water off northern New Zealand up towards the Pacific island of Tonga.

Breaks in the submarine crust of the Earth’s surface allow cold sea water to enter into the rock, where it is heated by natural geothermal processes. This hot water, which can be over 300 °C, is forced out of the ground to form hydrothermal vent systems, which were first discovered in 1977. This heated water contains metals such gold, copper, silver, zinc and also rare earth elements. When the hot vent water comes into contact with the cold water of the deep sea, many of the minerals are deposited in mounds and chimney-like structures (refer to Figure 2). These deposits are actively formed for only a short timeframe, often less than 30 years, as local geological activity starts-up and then dies away, quite naturally. The chimneys in particular constitute metal-rich deposits and as such, the chimneys and the vent sites (collectively called seafloor massive sulphide deposits) are potentially sites of future mining activity.

Associated with these deposits, whether they are active or inactive, are well-developed and often unique biological communities. New systems are continuously being found in the world’s oceans, and it seems likely that they exist in all, or nearly all, regions where there is natural volcanic and geothermal activity. Hence, on a global scale, their biodiversity is poorly known.

Initial assessments of global mineral wealth from the seafloor, including seafloor massive sulphide deposits, cobalt-rich crusts, manganese nodules, and phosphorite nodules, put the value of these resources well into the trillions of dollars. Until recently, the high extraction costs of marine minerals, the low cost of terrestrial mining plus unexploited terrestrial reserves meant that marine deposits were not mined commercially. However, increasing consumer demand from China and India, depletion of terrestrial resources, public concern about the environmental impacts of land-based mining operations, plus technological advances have all combined to make deep-sea mineral extraction a possibility, right now.

nz marine area

Figure 1 - Map of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean, with white line around the country showing extent of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ - out to 200 nautical miles). In the sea, lighter colours (e.g. beige) are shallower areas and darker colours (e.g. deep blue and purple) are deeper regions. The Kermadec Trench (10,000 metres deep) is the deep blue/purple thin line extending up towards one o’clock on this map. Immediately to the left is the thin beige line of the Kermadec Ridge, and immediately to the west a series of active and inactive volcanoes known as the Kermadec Volcanic Arc. Map reproduced courtesy of the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment.

Recently, the Canadian company Nautilus Minerals has agreed terms with the Government of Papua-New Guinea to start commercial mining for sulphide deposits in the waters of that country. New Zealand, given its natural marine mineral wealth, is likely to consider mining activities for the same type of deposits in the future. Large areas of the Kermadec Arc and the nearby Colville Ridge were licenced for prospecting as far back as 2002, and new legislation such as the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 has been enacted with seabed mining specifically in mind.

black smoke

Figure 2 – A ”black smoker”, part of the active vent system at Brothers Volcano, and its associated mineral deposit in the New Zealand EEZ. When such active systems shut down they become seafloor massive sulphide deposits. Photo courtesy of NIWA.

Given that the mining of parts of New Zealand’s EEZ could proceed in the near future, there are a number of key questions that need to be answered before mining commences so that the mining company/ies, the New Zealand Government and the people of New Zealand all understand and agree to the costs and benefits of this opportunity. This is all part of the challenge of achieving balance between economic prosperity and environmental protection in a country that prides itself on its “clean, green” image and where a large proportion of the public is actively and vocally against mining, oil and gas exploration. This challenge is not, of course, unique to New Zealand: many countries are now facing similar challenges. However, it is a challenge that New Zealand has to deal with now, before the experiences of other countries can be drawn on, and whilst international best practice guidelines are being drawn up for all forms of deep-sea mining and extraction activities.

The New Zealand public is generally very aware of environmental issues, both on land and in the sea. There has been recent protest against proposals for gold mining in conservation areas on Great Barrier Island (northern New Zealand) and also against oil and gas exploration in the sea. At the recent parliamentary elections (20th September, 2014), the Green Party proposed to ban all deep-sea minerals, oil and gas exploration, whereas the ruling National Party proposed active exploration and exploitation of such resources. Despite this very clear difference in political opinion, there is still a sense in New Zealand that the debate about the extent (if any) of exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mineral deposits in the deep sea has not been thoroughly aired, and requires more comprehensive information about the environmental effects. The public is generally poorly informed about the pros and cons of seabed mining, and resource managers know too little about the marine environment to be able to make informed decisions about the benefits and impacts of such activities.

To address this knowledge shortfall, the New Zealand Government has invested substantial sums of money in scientific programmes to map the seafloor and to better understand the marine biological and geochemical environment. Ongoing research is identifying and characterising the location and extent of mineral deposits. Based on the size and economic potential of mineral deposits the mining industry suggests that one in every ten, or perhaps one in every twenty, seafloor massive sulphide deposits may be mineable in an economical viable sense. Research carried out by Nautilus Minerals indicates that vent site recovery after mining may be rapid: monitoring equipment placed at a vent site after test mining was almost completely covered by new mineral deposits after only two years. But questions still remain about the biological recovery at impacted sites. Because we often don’t know how similar the biological systems are at geographically distant vent sites it is difficult to generalise about the extent to which the entire biological community can recover, or the rates of recovery: such rates may be site-specific if suites of species are unique (endemic) to certain sites or to certain regions. Beyond this, if mining is to be environmentally sustainable and to cause minimum ecosystem damage, we need to have detailed site-specific and broader regional information about directions and strengths of current flow, and about where the new biological recruits come from (the source populations) and where they go (the sink populations). Because vent sites may act like “stepping stones” for dispersal of animals along a ridge, it is crucially important to understand the impact of mining activity at each site. The loss of an individual site to mining activity may have profound consequences on the stepping stone model of connectivity among vent sites if animals cannot disperse beyond it. Thus, science has an important role to play in the identification of sites to be mined and sites that are not to be mined (what are called “set asides”) because of their biological importance.

It is clear that the mineral wealth of the deep sea is vast and that mining technology has developed to a stage where many mineral deposits are now extractable. It is also clear that this new opportunity to access rare and commercially important metals presents society and resource managers with questions and challenges about the limits and balances of blue growth and the maritime economy. New Zealand may be one of the first countries to start commercial exploitation of marine mineral resources from vent sites. When exactly this will commence is unclear and may depend, at least in part, on the outcome of the September 2014 General Election. One of the big problems associated with the exploitation of marine resources is that everything under the surface of the sea is unseen by most members of society: there is a problem of “out of sight and out of mind”. Further debate is needed so that all members of society can make informed decisions about the balance between exploitation and conservation that we, as a society, wish to pursue. It is therefore imperative that politicians, managers and scientists make available all relevant information to the general public so that open and informed debate (i.e., engagement, not just communication) can take place before commercial mining activity commences. The lessons learned by New Zealand over the next decade or so, if deep seabed mining commences, will be relevant to many maritime countries with mineral wealth in their EEZs.

I thank my colleagues, Drs. Ashley Rowden and Malcolm Clark of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA – Wellington) for their helpful comments on this article.

Jonathan Gardner – Professor of Marine Biology, School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. For more information, you can contact Prof Gardner at Jonathan.Gardner@vuw.ac.nz or (04) 463 5574. 

 

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Promising new treatments for multiple sclerosis

15 August 2014

New treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) using common anti-psychotic agents have been discovered by Victoria University of Wellington researchers.

The study led by Dr Anne La Flamme, an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences and head of the MS research programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, based at Victoria, shows the potential of clozapine and risperidone to effectively treat MS.

MS, a neurological disease which affects one in every 1,400 New Zealanders, is caused by immune cells invading the brain and causing inflammation. It leads to impaired vision and coordination and, eventually, paralysis, explains Dr La Flamme.

“While disease-modifying drugs are currently available, they are often effective in only a subpopulation of MS patients and all of these treatments target the disease through traditional immune pathways,” she says.

“What makes our findings so important is that clozapine and risperidone target a very different set of pathways from all other MS drugs, and thus have the potential to treat those MS populations for which no effective therapies currently exist.”

Published this week by international scientific journal PLOS ONE, the study demonstrates that risperidone and clozapine can reduce MS significantly by reducing the inflammation in the brain that causes this disease.

Additionally, this research indicates that the way clozapine and risperidone improve disease outcomes in MS is different from how these agents work to treat mental health disorders.

“By utilising existing therapies, this work may more quickly support improved outcomes for people with MS,” says Dr La Flamme.

This study, funded by the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand, was undertaken in collaboration with Dr Bronwen Connor, an associate professor at the University of Auckland.

The PLOS ONE article can be viewed online here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0104430

For more information contact Dr Anne La Flamme on 04-463 6093, 021 555 413 or email anne.laflamme@vuw.ac.nz.

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Rare footage captured of tuatara hatching

4 August 2014

Tutara hatching from an egg

Extremely rare footage of a tuatara hatching has been filmed at Victoria University of Wellington. Last to hatch, the egg was one of 23 being incubated in captivity this year as part of a joint initiative that helped to save a threatened population of tuatara from extinction.

Since the early 1990s, Victoria University, the Department of Conservation (DoC) and local Mana Whenua Ngati Manuhiri have run an intensive conservation recovery plan for tuatara on Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island, partly-funded by The Hauturu Supporters Trust and Auckland Zoo.

Hauturu ō Toi is a nature reserve located 80 kilometres north-east of Auckland, which is now home to around 300 tuatara, most of which have been incubated at Victoria University.

The tuatara filmed was an offspring from the programme. Using a low-cost microcomputer and infrared camera, Warren Butcher from Victoria University’s Image Services team filmed seven hours of footage and then compressed it into a short video clip.

Warren worked with Sue Keall, a technician in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and the Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, one of New Zealand’s eight Centres of Research Excellence, who was a volunteer in the first team to visit Hauturu ō Toi 23 years ago. The team searched day and night for tuatara, which are found only in New Zealand, and which had not been seen on the island for 10 years.

Professor Charles Daugherty, Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Victoria, led the conservation initiative as part of a wider joint Victoria and DoC study of the 30 known tuatara populations, all on islands around New Zealand.

The Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier population was of special interest, says Professor Daugherty, as it occupied by far the largest island on which tuatara had possibly survived, and was the only island with kauri forest and other habitats common on mainland New Zealand. However, no tuatara had been seen on the island since 1981, and the population was believed to be extinct.

“Amazingly we found four tuatara in a week on that first trip. Everyone was surprised and a disused aviary had to be adapted to house them, with the longer term view that they would remain in captivity on the island for their own safety, pending an agreement to eradicate kiore (Pacific rats) from the island,” says Ms Keall.

Dr Nicky Nelson, an associate professor in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Principal Investigator with the Allan Wilson Centre, joined a second trip where the teams found four more tuatara. Shortly after, a purpose built ‘tuatarium’ enclosure was built to house the four male and four female tuatara.

Over the years, the tuatara laid eggs that were sent to Victoria University to be incubated and hatched. The young tuatara were then returned to Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier to be reared in a ‘headstart’ programme, where they were kept in special enclosures, safe from kiore.

Since kiore were eradicated from the island in 2006, juvenile tuatara hatched at Victoria have been able to be released into the wild on Hauturu ō Toi/Little Barrier Island.

“For the Little Barrier population, this programme stopped their near certain extinction in the presence of kiore, and boosted their recovery by increasing the numbers more quickly than could have happened naturally,” says Ms Keall.

The tuatara caught on video is the 255th to be hatched at Victoria as part of the programme.

Watch the YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ar4hG8b534

For more information contact Haley Small, Communications Adviser, on 04-463 5105 or haley.small@vuw.ac.nz.

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Using synthetic biology to make new antibiotics

22 July 2014

Research at Victoria University of Wellington could lead to a new generation of antibiotics, helping tackle the global issue of ‘superbugs’ that are resistant to modern medicine.

Led by Mark Calcott, who has just completed his PhD study, under the supervision of Dr David Ackerley, an associate professor in the School of Biological Science, the research is delivering new knowledge about how synthetic biology might be used to counter bacteria that have become resistant to existing antibiotics.

The recently published study defines new ways that microbes, which are used to make some commonly used types of antibiotics, can be reengineered to produce modified forms of the original molecules.

“Part of the problem is that people have historically been careless when using antibiotics, which has, one-by-one, allowed bacteria to build resistance, thrive and multiply. We’re smarter now, but at a time when we’re running out of options,” says Dr Ackerley.

“There is a serious and immediate need for new antibiotics—either we have to develop the next generation or find clever and affordable ways of modifying the ones we currently have,” he says.

“The basis of our research is the idea that the microbial machinery (enzymes) that makes a particular antibiotic can be rearranged, to make a different antibiotic that resistant bacteria won’t recognise. The new antibiotics will still fight infection, and if we can use them in a more targeted way, bacteria won’t become resistant so easily.”

He says the ultimate goal of the study is to be able to produce high yields of new and affordable antibiotics that ‘superbugs’ don’t recognise and are not resistant to.

Results have been published by the American Society for Microbiology journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, viewable online here: http://bit.ly/1jpXM9U

The research is a core output of a grant Dr Ackerley has received from the Marsden Fund for a project called Cracking the non-ribosomal code. Dr Ackerley is collaborating with Professor Iain Lamont from the Department of Biochemistry at Otago University.

For more information contact Dr David Ackerley on 04-463 5576 or email david.ackerley@vuw.ac.nz.

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Putting a dollar value on conservation

11 July 2014

The economic and social benefits of greening urban areas are being explored in a multi-disciplinary project at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leading the project, with support from Wellington City Council, is Dr Wayne Linklater, the Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology and senior lecturer in ecology and biodiversity at Victoria's School of Biological Sciences.

He says the project consists of two main themes.

The first is living with nature—how to strike a balance between making urban areas better places for wildlife to live, and managing some of the negative effects of living more closely with wildlife.

The project's other main theme is how biodiversity in urban areas can have a positive impact on peoples' health and, subsequently, the wider economy.

Dr Linklater says the project seeks to transform the idea of conservation from being a charity in which only a minority is interested, to something that can garner wider backing and increased support from government.

"We know that having biodiversity in cities is good for conservation—we want to show how it's also good for people, and to put a dollar value on it.

"Having people engaged with nature and providing green-spaces for them to enjoy has clear benefits for mental well-being."

As part of the project, Victoria Conservation Biology masters student Julie Whitburn has been using the Wellington City Council's free plants programme to explore the impact of increased greenery and participation in local planting on peoples' well-being.

Through a postal survey, Julie surveyed over 400 households in 20 neighbourhoods across 15 suburbs in Wellington, using internationally approved assessments of well-being.

Wellington

"Quite significantly, she has been able to demonstrate strong associations between living in a greener neighbourhood and peoples' mental health," says Dr Linklater.

He says there is also a correlation between the amount of biodiversity in an area and the ranking that place has on the New Zealand Deprivation Index and on residents' mental health, with less green neighbourhoods scoring lower on the index and having poorer mental health.

"There is a strong health justification for better environmental design and management of neighbourhoods," says Dr Linklater.

The project lends itself to a multi-disciplinary approach—already the researchers have collaborated with Victoria senior psychology lecturer, Dr Taciano Milfont and the work is complementary to research being done towards more resilient cities in Victoria's School of Architecture and on sustainable cities in Victoria's School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences.

"We are also interested in bringing health authorities on board to get testing underway—surveying neighbourhoods with a high deprivation index, greening those areas—preferably by engaging the residents in planting—and then going back in a few years to measure the difference in health benefits," says Dr Linklater.

"If we can improve mental health by, say, 20 percent, what does that mean in terms of less demand on the health system, and dollar savings to the economy?"

Dr Linklater believes there are very real economic gains to be had—but the key will be to persuade the Government to invest in this area.

"We need to convince economists and accountants by quantifying the impact of green space, so that this work can have an influence on policy."

For more information, please contact Dr Wayne Linklater on Wayne.Linklater@vuw.ac.nz

 

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Detecting harmful molecules in the environment

4 July 2014

Victoria University of Wellington researchers have developed a new technique that can detect environmental levels of oestrogen at the equivalent of detecting one pinch of salt in an olympic-sized swimming pool.

oestrogenWork by Professor Ken McNatty from the School of Biological Sciences, Dr Justin Hodgkiss from the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, and PhD students Shalen Kumar and Omar Alsager, has resulted in a tool that will add to knowledge about the presence of oestrogenic hormones in the environment—molecules with the potential to affect human and animal reproductive cycles.

“When oestrogen is in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can be harmful to living organisms including humans,” says Dr Hodgkiss.

“It is crucial to be aware if there’s oestrogen in the environment, especially as it is not uncommon for water in many countries, including New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, to be recycled. We have no idea how much oestrogenic material is in there.”

Another concern, says Professor McNatty, is that the additives that increase plasticity in everyday items such as drink bottles, containers and rubbish bags, can accumulate over time and behave like oestrogen. But, he says, to measure these items repetitively and quickly is very expensive. “The question is, what is safe if you’re exposed to these additives for 30 years?”

Currently, the only way to measure the amount of oestrogen in water is to send a sample to a lab for analysis, which is expensive and takes time to get results says Professor McNatty. “With our new sensors, anyone in the field, such as a regional council officer or water board inspector, could add a sample to the test vial and if oestrogen is present, the sensor will change colour giving a yes or no answer in just a few minutes.”

Results from the first part of the research, focused on detecting oestrogen and supported by Viclink, Victoria’s commercialisation office, have been published in the international journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

The researchers will focus next on refining the sensitivity of the sensors to provide information on exactly how much oestrogen is present, and to expand the sensors to target other molecules

“There are a wide range of applications for this versatile technology. Our research will provide an invaluable tool for further research into oestrogen, and other harmful molecules, in the environment,” says Dr Hodgkiss.

For more information contact Dr Justin Hodgkiss on 04-463-6983, 022 6055 007 or email justin.hodgkiss@vuw.ac.nz, or Professor Ken McNatty on 04-463 6029 or email ken.mcnatty@vuw.ac.nz.

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Fighting paediatric disease through research

4 July 2014

A Victoria University of Wellington researcher is one step closer to identifying candidate treatments to delay the onset and progression of a fatal paediatric disease for which no effective therapy currently exists.

Work by Dr Andrew Munkacsi from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Centre for Biodiscovery, in collaboration with Professor Mengjie Zhang from the School of Engineering and Computer Science, and Dr Stephen Sturley from Columbia University, is delivering new knowledge about the rare neurodegenerative disease, Niemann-Pick type C (NPC).

NPC is a monogenic disease caused by a defect in one of two different genes that affects approximately one in 150,000 children worldwide. Those affected are typically born without symptoms, but within a few years exhibit dementia similar to Alzheimer's disease and usually die before reaching adolescence.

Using exome sequencing, a strategy that selectively investigates important sequences of genetic material in all 23,000 human genes, Dr Munkacsi is analysing DNA samples from siblings in Australia, the United Kingdom and United States who have NPC disease to identify underlying disease gene mutation.

"Affected siblings, by inheritance, have the same mutation in the disease gene, but the onset and progression in the cohort we are studying is different. What we hope to do is identify genes associated with disease severity," says Dr Munkacsi.

Dr Munkacsi has been researching NPC for the past nine years. Through his investigations with Dr Sturley, using a yeast model of NPC disease, they have demonstrated that there are genes other than the disease-causing genes that modify disease severity. This strategy has been successful, and has identified a drug that will be further tested in a human clinical trial in the United States.

They are now going to the next level and conducting the first genome-wide analysis of sibling pairs affected with NPC disease.

"Once we identify which genes regulate the onset and progression of NPC disease, we can work towards targeting those genes with drugs. Our goal is to identify drugs already on the market as the children do not have the time to wait for new drugs to be developed and approved.

"As terrible as Alzheimer’s disease is, at least persons affected live a healthy life for 60 to 80 years. Children affected with NPC disease deserve a chance to live a healthy life," says Dr Munkacsi.

For more information, please contact Dr Andrew Munkacsi on ANdrew.Munkacsi@vuw.ac.nz

 

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Winner of 2014 Zonta Science Award

7 May 2014

Dr Laura Green, who is part of a Victoria University of Wellington team researching better ways of treating the debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis, has won the 2014 Zonta Women in Science Award.

His Excellency, Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, GNZM, QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand presented Dr Green her prize at a special reception hosted at Government House.

The Zonta Science Award provides Dr Green with $15,000 prize money, and $3,000 to be put towards overseas travel. She will use the funding to travel to Switzerland to work with an eminent researcher who has developed a new imaging technique that can visualise individual immune cells trying to gain entry to the central nervous system.

Laura Green“I will then bring this specialist knowledge back to New Zealand,” says Dr Green who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Immunology at the Centre for Biodiscovery, School of Biological Sciences. She held her first research position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States at the age of 17, and has been involved in biomedical research ever since.

In 2003, Dr Green came to New Zealand and has held research positions at Massey University, and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research based at Victoria.

She obtained her PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology at Victoria in 2012.

Dame Margaret Sparrow, Convener of the Zonta Science Award, says the judges were impressed not only with Dr Green’s commitment to science but also her community involvement, notably her enjoyment of public speaking and her enthusiasm for competitive road cycling, which includes assisting with cycle safety programmes and cycling skill clinics.

“Laura is passionate about making science accessible to the wider public and is involved in a number of projects including the use of cartoons and film to make science more exciting.”

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Bid for more cash to tackle wasp problem

11 April 2014

Entomologists are trying to drum up increased funding to fight a huge wasp problem.

Warm and dry weather stretching back well over a year, and the rapid spread of giant willow aphids which produce honeydew - a favourite wasp food - is behind the spread.

Wasps have hit the headlines after people discovered monster nests near their homes, or after the insects launched aggressive attacks including including one on primary school children and adults stung when a nest was disturbed at Tahunanui Beach.wasp3

Professor Phil Lester from Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences said the rapid spread of the willow aphids, which had arrived in this country in the past few years, had made the wasp problem worse.

"These aphids are effectively fuelling the wasps.

"They're [wasps] really aggressive. They're probably the most harmful animal we have in New Zealand."

At Victoria, research looking at potential biological control using pathogens and parasites was at an early stage.

"Many New Zealanders, including us entomologists, are pretty desperate for a wasp control option. So there's all sorts of avenues being investigated," Phil says.

For now, there were baits that could be used to kill wasps but a lack of registration of effective pesticides for wasp control limited their use.

"My desire would be to work towards something that was environmentally sustainable, like a biological control agent, whether that's something in New Zealand that we could exploit, or something that we need to bring in from overseas," Phil says.

Two invasive species of social wasps are the major problem in New Zealand. German wasps, which have spread to most of the North Island and parts of the upper South Island, and common wasps which almost completely displaced german wasps from beech forests in the upper South Island because of their superior competitiveness.

The Department of Conservation said wasp densities in South Island's 1 million hectares of honeydew beech forests were the highest recorded anywhere on Earth at around 34 nests per hectare.

Dr Darren Ward of Landcare Research said higher wasp numbers affected the breeding success of some birds and also had an impact on some lizard and bug populations.

A group had been set up to lobby central government about the problem, while a study funded by DOC and the Ministry for Primary Industries was trying to put a figure on the economic cost of wasps, Darren says. "Wasps don't just affect native habitats. They have quite a big health impact. They kill many, many thousands of beehives each year. They're also in vineyards and orchards. They will eat grapes and spoil fruit."

It had been estimated wasp abundance in the forests would need to be reduced by more than 80 per cent to conserve vulnerable invertebrate species.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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Climate change impacts tuatara population

11 April 2014

A new study involving researchers from Victoria University of Wellington shows climate change could ultimately result in the extinction of a population of tuatara.

Dr Nicky Nelson, Dr Kristine Grayson and Susan Keall from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, in collaboration with the Department of Conservation and University of Western Australia, provide a case study of a natural population of tuatara on North Brother Island in the Cook Strait of New Zealand.

The research, published this week in the international scientific journal PLOS ONE, shows that as a result of warming temperatures, there is an accelerating decline in the proportion of adult female tuatara in the population.

tuatara

"Our research reveals that as the male-bias in the population increases, female tuatara body condition, fertility rates and survival decline," says Dr Nelson.

Projected temperature increases for New Zealand are expected to further tip the hatchling sex ratio towards males-owing to the pattern of temperature-dependent sex determination in tuatara where males hatch at warmer temperatures.

Dr Nelson says understanding the mechanisms underlying population declines is critical for preventing the extinction of endangered populations.

"If we understand the causes of decline for species, we can consider our options for management, particularly under the various scenarios for climate warming."

Population viability models predict that without management, intervention or an evolutionary response the North Brother Island population will ultimately be made up entirely of males and become extinct.

The study demonstrates that the sex ratio in tuatara populations can be an underappreciated threat to long-term viability, particularly in populations that appear numerically stable.

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Huge wasp numbers concern

27 March 2014

Entomologists are frantically trying to drum up increased funding to fight a huge wasp problem that has been made even worse by the recent arrival of another invader.

Warm and dry weather stretching back well over a year is one reason for the large numbers of wasps this summer and early autumn. A second is the rapid spread of giant willow aphids which produce honeydew, a favourite wasp food.

In the past month or so wasps have hit the headlines numerous times after people discovered monster nests near their homes, or after the insects launched aggressive attacks.

Among the incidents:

* Sheep farmer Janet Kelland was attacked by hundreds of wasps after stepping on a nest in a remote area northwest of Taumarunui. At one point she feared she would not survive.

* New Plymouth woman Diana Cole watched a wasp nest grow bigger by the day on a wood chopping block. Then one day it rolled free onto her driveway and she took the opportunity to run it over, ending the problem.

* A nest containing thousands of wasps was found built around a ponga stump in a backyard in the Taranaki town of Normanby. Exterminator Neville Prestidge said it was the largest nest he had encountered in 14 years doing the job.

* Nine pupils from a Nelson primary school and a woman were taken to hospital after being stung when a wasp nest was disturbed at Tahunanui Beach.

waspProfessor Phil Lester from Victoria University's School of Biological Sciences said the rapid spread of the invasive willow aphids, which had arrived in this country in the past few years, had made the wasp problem even worse than it would otherwise have been.

"It (willow aphids) seems like a massive problem. It's just making the wasp population worse. These aphids are effectively fuelling the wasps."

Now the willow aphids had come along, wasps were going to have to be a higher priority. "It's a huge problem."

"People end up in hospital fairly regularly, and people will die," Lester said.

"They're (wasps) really aggressive. They're probably the most harmful animal we have in New Zealand."

Researchers around the country and overseas were working on ways to control the wasp population.

At Victoria, research looking at potential biological control using pathogens and parasites was at an early stage.

"Many New Zealanders, including us entomologists, are pretty desperate for a wasp control option. So there's all sorts of avenues being investigated," Lester said.

For now, there were baits that could be used to kill wasps but a lack of registration of effective pesticides for wasp control limited their use. Pesticide companies needed to be on board to register toxic chemicals - poison baits - so it was legal to use them to kill wasps.

"There are chemicals around that are really, really, really effective but we need those to be registered," Lester said.

"It's a relatively quick fix that should really be happening quicker."

Ideally it would be preferable not to use large amounts of toxic, or even mildly toxic, chemicals in the environment.

"So my desire would be to work towards something that was environmentally sustainable, like a biological control agent, whether that's something in New Zealand that we could exploit, or something that we need to bring in from overseas."

Two invasive species of social wasps are the major problem in New Zealand.

German wasps are native to Europe and northern Africa. In this country they were first found at an air force base near Hamilton in 1945. Within a few years they had spread to most of the North Island and parts of the upper South Island.

Common wasps are native to Europe and parts of Asia. They were confirmed as established in Dunedin in 1983, although museum specimens show queens were collected from Wellington as early as 1978. They rapidly spread throughout New Zealand and almost completely displaced german wasps from beech forests in the upper South Island because of their superior competitiveness.

According to the Department of Conservation, wasp densities in South Island beech forests - covering more than 1 million hectares of conservation areas in the South Island - are the highest recorded anywhere on earth.

Researchers put those densities at up to 370 wasps per square metre of tree trunk and 34 nests per hectare. The high densities are due to the availability of honeydew being produced by insects.

Dr Darren Ward of Landcare Research said higher wasp numbers affected the breeding success of some birds and also had an impact on some lizard and bug populations.

"They do a lot more damage to the native environment. They eat a lot more food, usually native bugs, and they also eat the honeydew (produced by aphids) ... That's basically a really good sugar resource important for native birds, native lizards and native bugs, and the wasps get it first."

A group had been set up to lobby central government about the problem, while a study funded by DOC and the Ministry for Primary Industries was trying to put a figure on the economic cost of wasps, Ward said.

"Wasps don't just affect native habitats. They have quite a big health impact. They kill many, many thousands of beehives each year. They're also in vineyards and orchards. They will eat grapes and spoil fruit."

Lester and Ward are among authors of a paper published this year on critical issues facing New Zealand entomology, developed in consultation with the Entomological Society of New Zealand.

A list of nine priorities includes limiting the effects of invasive invertebrates, particularly german and common wasps in honeydew beech forests.

It had been estimated wasp abundance in the forests would need to be reduced by more than 80 per cent to conserve vulnerable invertebrate species, the paper said.

"We believe that a sustained, dramatic reduction of wasp densities is necessary for conservation, especially in honeydew beech forests."

Pesticides would be useful in relatively small areas, but biological control was the only viable option for sustained wasp control.

Lester and Ward were also among the authors of an article in the New Zealand Science Review last year which said that apart from the direct manual application of insecticides to nests, toxic baits had been the only successful control tool for wasps so far.

Researchers using a protein bait containing the broad-spectrum insecticide fipronil had been highly effective in controlling wasps, but commercial restrictions around end-uses of fipronil in this country had prevented any wasp bait products containing the toxin being manufactured for commercial purposes.

In a Landcare Research report Ward said social wasps were pests in may temperate regions of the world.

"Consequently, a sizeable amount of research effort has been focused on developing control strategies. However, despite these efforts, wasps continue to be a major problem."

Along with poisoned baits and biological control, possible ways to control wasp populations included interference with wasp pheromones - chemicals secreted by an organism to communicate with other members of the same species; and RNA interference, a natural biological process that could turn-off specific genes.

- © Fairfax NZ News 

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Strengthening forecasting systems in the Pacific

25 February 2014

Roan Plotz

Ancient wisdom can be put to practical use when combined with modern weather forecasting tools, according to Victoria University of Wellington PhD candidate Roan Plotz.

Roan, a traditional ecological knowledge scientist for the Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific (COSPPac), is working with Pacific meteorological services on collating traditional weather and climate knowledge, verifying the information and using it to make seasonal forecasts more useful to Pacific Island communities.

The first step, says Roan, is to identify what local people use to predict what weather is coming and then monitor those traditional indicators to see if they correlate to actual weather patterns.

“In parts of the Pacific, for example, people believe there is a strong correlation with the amount of fruiting and how much rainfall will fall in the next season. This has been shown to be true,” says Roan.

The ultimate goal of the study, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is to bridge the gap between traditional indicators and scientific techniques to improve weather and climate forecasting abilities.

“The Pacific Islands are vulnerable to sea level rise and severe weather events and have always kept a close eye on the seasons,” says Roan.

“Many communities favour traditional ways—such as reading signs of nature, animals and plants—over scientific ways, partly due to lack of exposure to modern forecasting tools.”

After assessing traditional indicators, it is hoped that the Pacific Met Services will be better placed to inform their local communities about what should be monitored in order to help them better adapt to an increasingly variable climate.

“It’s much more relevant if we can tell people for a fact that monitoring a certain tree, or plant, or animal allows you to forecast as accurately as modern forecasting tools.”

Roan’s experience with indigenous knowledge had its origins in his PhD study of the tick bird and black rhinoceros relationship. With the support of the Centre of Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology at Victoria University, Roan explored the validity of the African tick bird’s indigenous name ‘The Rhino’s Guard’.

“Unknown at the time, my PhD research led to my current role in the Pacific. My training in ecological science at Victoria and field experiences in Africa gave me the foundation I needed.”

Roan submitted his PhD thesis last year and now works for the COSPPac program at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

For more information contact Roan Plotz on +61 (3) 9669 4640 or r.plotz@bom.gov.au

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University looks to upgrade science facility

12 February 2014

New SBS building

Victoria University is planning to spend up to $100 million on a School of Biological Sciences at its Kelburn campus.

The university has applied for resource consent for the new block to replace the school's substandard current home in the Kirk Building.

The proposed new school has been designed by architects Warren and Mahoney and the proposed location would be in front of the Alan MacDiarmid building at the top of Kelburn Pde.

The 12,000-square-metre four-storey building would provide teaching, research, laboratories and academic administration space.

Campus Services director Jenny Bentley said a financial feasibility study was being run alongside the resource consent process. It would need to be proven to be value for money before any final decision to proceed.

If it did go ahead, tenders were expected to be called before the middle of the year and approval would be sought from the Victoria University Council in June.

Construction was likely to start in late 2014 and should be completed by late 2017.

Once built, the university planned to start work on upgrading the nearby Kirk Building from early 2018 to early 2020.

The university told Wellington City Council that biological sciences was a key strategic research and teaching area and student numbers in this department were growing.

However, the Kirk Building, where the school is now based, was not fit for the purpose. It failed to meet the university's seismic rating or health and safety standards.

"The current condition of the building's laboratories and physical environment is considered to be a deterrent to staff recruitment and student retention," the university said.

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New knowledge about treating multiple sclerosis

4 February 2014

New information that could lead to improved treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) has been uncovered by Victoria University of Wellington scientists.

A study carried out at Victoria, and recently published online in the international scientific journal PLOS ONE, holds promise for patients suffering from secondary progressive MS, an advanced form of the disease, which causes nerve degeneration leading to impaired vision and coordination, and eventually, paralysis.

PhD student Madeleine White and Dr Anne La FlammeThe study focused on understanding how a new MS drug, MIS416, developed by the New Zealand biotech company Innate Immunotherapeutics, is able to help patients with secondary progressive MS, a form of MS with few effective treatments.

The team of scientists includes Dr Anne La Flamme, an Associate Professor in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and head of the MS Research Programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, PhD student Madeleine White, and Dr Gill Webster from Innate Immunotherapeutics.

“We know this drug works, but we are not sure why. This study has helped us understand the pathways that are driving the disease and how the medication alters the immune system, giving us a better idea of why MIS416 works as well as insight into how to treat patients and predict who will do better on this sort of medication,” says Dr La Flamme.

Most people believe MS revolves around T cells, says Dr La Flamme, but the Victoria study reveals that targeting other cells in the central nervous system can significantly reduce advanced forms of MS.

For more information contact Dr Anne La Flamme on 04-463 6093 or anne.laflamme@vuw.ac.nz. You can read the full article here

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