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PhD student’s revolutionary cell research to fight brain diseases

27 April 2016

A Victoria University of Wellington PhD student hopes his Neurological Foundation of New Zealand scholarship will lead to new treatments for brain diseases.

mitochondriaMatt Rowe received a 2015 Neurological Foundation W and B Miller Postgraduate Scholarship worth just over $100,000 to carry out research on mitochondria—the tiny structures that generate the energy to power a cell.

The research is likely to have implications for treatment strategies for degenerative brain disease like Alzheimer’s as well as brain cancer.

While it has been known for several years that mitochondria can transfer between cells, the reasons why a cell might give or receive mitochondria are largely unknown.

Matt’s research, carried out under the supervision of Dr Melanie McConnell from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Professor Mike Berridge from the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, will help to determine the drivers of this phenomenon.

“We’ll examine the mechanisms of mitochondria transfer in diseased cells in response to injury. We’re interested in the survival mechanisms of brain cells, what they do when injured, and how this relates to the movement of mitochondria,” says Matt.

A team including Dr McConnell and Professor Berridge have found that cancer cells will acquire mitochondria from the normal surrounding tissue in order to prosper.

“It’s not yet clear why this happens, it could be to resist treatment. We will be examining mitochondrial transfer in two related diseases—neurodegeneration and neurological cancer. Each disease involves the same neural tissues, however the outcomes for cells in each are vastly different,” says Matt.

Over the past few months Matt has been developing a set of tools to study the mitochondria’s movements.

“Mitochondria are normally labelled with fluorescent dyes, but this method is tricky to control and is not accurate,” says Matt.

“I’ve used a genetic approach to develop a new system that will enable us to measure these transfer events with high levels of precision. Sometimes there are thousands of mitochondria and a few have transferred between cells.

“We’re using unique genetic signatures to give us strong, quantifiable results. This system will allow us to see whether injury drives mitochondrial transfer in diseased cells.”

For more information contact Matt Rowe on

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Research funding to test the waters

22 April 2016

shalenA three-year Victoria University of Wellington research collaboration with Chinese partners has been granted $300,000 to develop tools to detect harmful molecules in the environment.

Victoria researcher Dr Shalen Kumar has been awarded the funding through a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) Catalyst Fund.

The project will see Dr Kumar work with colleagues from Huaqiao University in China to further develop a suite of sensory tools to detect contaminants in waterways.

“The sensors use synthetic bio-receptors that allow us to determine the presence of molecules, which have been known to have harmful effects on humans and wildlife. The molecules are present in trace amounts, and we want to see in what levels” says Dr Kumar, a Research Fellow in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences.

“The bio-receptors can bind to any target molecule that one may be interested in, and be put on a sensor platform to measure how much of the target was present.”

Having already developed the tool to detect oestrogen, Dr Kumar will develop new sensors and refine the sensitivity of the sensor to new targets. He is working with Professor Ken McNatty, Dr Peter Li, and Dr Janet Pitman from Victoria, and Dr Jun Sheng Lin from Huaqiao University.

Dr Kumar says the research will lead to a better understanding of exact levels of these contaminants in the environment.

“Scientists already know these molecules are harmful—what we would like to do is find methods to measure them that are cost-effective, ultra-sensitive, and user-friendly.”

Dr Kumar is the co-founder and chief technical officer for new company AuramerBio Ltd, which was established by Viclink (Victoria’s commercialisation office) with investment from PowerHouse Ventures.

“The sensors generated as part of Shalen’s research will eventually be incorporated into the AuramerBio product portfolio and taken to market,” says Jeremy Jones, AuramerBio chief executive. “It’s a very exciting time for the company and for research in this area.”

Dr Kumar’s funding is part of MBIE’s Catalyst New Zealand-China Strategic Research Alliance fund.

For more information contact Shalen Kumar on 04-463 6440 or

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Health Research Council funding for Victoria University researchers

19 April 2016

Victoria University of Wellington researchers have been awarded $300,000 in funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) for projects that will aid chronic pain suffers and the disabled.

Dr Bronwyn Kivell from Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and Bruno Marques from the School of Architecture are the recipients of Explorer Grants in the HRC’s 2016 funding round, each worth $150,000 over two years.

Explorer Grants are awarded for research that advances ideas considered to be transformative, innovative, exploratory or unconventional, and have potential for major impact.

Dr Kivell, a researcher in physiology and neurobiology, will use her grant to develop new, improved painkillers that don’t cause addiction or become less effective over time.

“Chronic pain affects one in six New Zealanders, robbing them of their quality of life. It is poorly treated with current medications, which become ineffective with long-term use and have high abuse potential,” says Dr Kivell.

“Our project is focused on a novel chemical called Salvinorin A. With considerable therapeutic benefits over traditional morphine-like compounds, Salvinorin A painkillers promise to transform the treatment of chronic pain, while the potential social and economic benefits of developing such a therapy are enormous.”

Dr Kivell is working with medicinal chemist Professor Thomas Prisinzano from the University of Kansas.

Landscape architecture researcher Bruno Marques will work alongside Jacqueline McIntosh, a senior lecturer in Victoria’s School of Architecture, looking at the design of open space to aid disabled people and their rehabilitation.

“New Zealand’s disabled population is projected to grow at a disproportionate rate over the next few decades, and we need to prepare for types of disability which are more common with ageing, like mobility disabilities,” says Mr Marques.

“Our research seeks to develop design parameters for a series of walking paths that measure and track the progress and regress of the physically disabled. We hope to create safe, functional, therapeutic outdoor spaces for people with disability, which they could use in local parks for free.”

Improving health and wellbeing in our communities is one of Victoria’s areas of academic distinctiveness, says Victoria’s Vice-Provost (Research) Professor Kate McGrath.

“The Explorer Grants are a critical way of allowing researchers to develop new avenues of research that have the potential to change people's lives.

“Victoria researchers are committed to ensuring their work will deliver impact to enhancing patient health and wellbeing”.

Nine Explorer Grants were awarded in 2016, worth a combined total of $1.35 million.

For more information contact Samantha Fisher on 04-463 5105 or

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Māori and Pasifika health in spotlight as 25-year genetic study concludes

1 March 2016

The impact of around 5000 years of migration has significant implications for Māori and Pasifika health today, according to a just-completed research programme by a Victoria University of Wellington biologist.

Dr Geoff Chambers, an expert in genetics who is based at Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, has led the project, which has spanned more than 25 years.

Now the conclusions are set to be published in four international academic journals which Dr Chambers says marks the culmination of his decades of hard work.

In a paper just published in the Global Journal of Anthropology Research, Dr Chambers investigates the Austronesian Diaspora settlement voyages.

“This really is the big picture story,” explains Dr Chambers. “There are many theories and accounts of Pacific voyaging, but this is the first that brings it all together and provides the only complete description of the origins of Polynesian peoples, their complex ancestry, and how genetic variation was lost as people migrated across the Pacific.”

In another study yet to be published, Dr Chambers explores how these ancient migration events caused the gene pools of Māori and Pasifika people to diverge markedly from Europeans, and explains why this has significant medical implications for present-day New Zealand.

“That genetic distinction explains why people of European descent are more prone to certain diseases than Māori or Pacific Islanders are, and vice versa,” he says. “This research argues strongly for a special, ethnic view of medicine in New Zealand in order for the health system to be effective and equitable.”

Dr Chambers worked on another paper (alongside researchers Paul Callister and Robert Didham) for New Zealand Sociology, which cautions of the complexities around official data-gathering.

“Having firm ethnic boundaries doesn’t provide the full picture,” says Dr Chambers. “The Government collects statistics via the census or its various agencies based on people’s self-declared cultural affiliation—people might be living and identifying themselves as Māori even though they have a relatively small percentage of Māori genes. That’s where this starts to get complex, because that data doesn’t take into account what we now know about the important role genetics plays in a range of health issues.”

A fourth paper Dr Chambers has completed was carried out in collaboration with researchers at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Kelantan, and reconstructs the population history of Malaysia.

He is planning a series of public events in which he will present the results of his study, and he has also been invited to share his findings at an event organised by Arthritis New Zealand in early March.

For more information contact Dr Geoff Chambers on 04 562 8450 or

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Biotechnology researcher awarded grant to engineer enzymes

19 February 2016

Associate Professor David Ackerley from the School of Biological Sciences has been awarded a grant worth US$1.5 million to develop enzymes that will enable the study of degenerative diseases in zebrafish. The National Institutes of Health, a biomedical research facility in the United States, awarded the grant to Associate Professor Ackerley and his research partner Jeffrey Mumm, Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute and McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “Firstly, my team at Victoria will engineer some enzymes so that they become extremely efficient at activating certain drugs from a non-toxic to a highly toxic form,” says Associate Professor Ackerley. “If these enzymes are present in a living cell, that cell will become highly sensitive to the drugs and die when it encounters them. Importantly, ordinary cells—even those right next to the sensitive cells— will be unaffected.” The biotechnology researcher will then provide Associate Professor Mumm with a piece of DNA that acts as a blueprint for the engineered enzymes, enabling them to be targeted to any cell type that is desired. “The original concept for this system was invented by Dr Mumm. It worked fairly well, however our improved enzymes will enable him to far more effectively target certain types of cells in zebrafish, to make those cells sensitive to the drugs,” says Associate Professor Ackerley. “For example, if the enzymes are made only in photoreceptor cells in the retina, application of the drugs will then mimic the effects of degenerative blindness in the zebrafish.” The processes underlying regeneration or repair of the photoreceptor cells can then be studied, says Associate Professor Ackerley. “We can screen for new drug candidates that enhance these repair processes. Moreover, the same enzyme tools could be used in a very similar manner in other organs to model other degenerative diseases and to investigate potential cures.”

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How munching Moa affected plant evolution

18 January 2016

The snacking habits of the now-extinct Moa may have influenced the way certain plant species evolved, according to new research from Victoria University of Wellington.

For his PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity, Patrick Kavanagh compared plant species on offshore islands to their close relatives on the mainland to assess differences in size and growth patterns.

“I found that island species tended to produce larger seeds, which may be advantageous on an island because if the seeds are too easily dispersed they could end up in the ocean,” says Patrick.

The rest of his thesis was focused on the role that herbivores play, which led him to the Chatham Islands to conduct fieldwork.

“In New Zealand we have plants that develop a unique growth form— characterised by high-angled branching, leading to a tangled mass of branches, and very small leaves. But in the Chathams that sort of growth form is nowhere near as prevalent—many related species don’t show it at all, with branches that are more upright and which don’t cross over so much. The leaves are bigger too.”

Patrick says there have been a variety of hypotheses over the years to explain this. “It’s been suggested that the high-angled tangle of branches we see on mainland New Zealand provides protection from wind and frost, but it’s a lot windier on the Chatham Islands.”

However one known difference is that Moa never reached the Chatham Islands. “It seems quite logical—a reduction in herbivory pressure on the plants would have relaxed the need for small leaves that are hard to reach, meaning that the island species were able to grow bigger leaves to intercept more light and be more productive.”

For the last part of his thesis Patrick narrowed his focus to one species: the lancewood, also known as horoeka or Pseudopanax crassifolius.

“The lancewood is pretty amazing and unique. It starts out with rigid, saw-like leaves when it’s juvenile but at about three metres in height, the leaves become wider and more rounded in shape. It’s no coincidence that three metres is the same as the maximum height that the largest Moa species was able to reach.”

While this theory has been around for some time, Patrick has added weight to the argument with his examination of the changes in colour to the lancewood leaves as the plant matures.

“There are small green spots on the top side of the leaves which are associated with the lateral spikes down the sides. These spots are most conspicuous when the plant is poorly developed and therefore most vulnerable to predators—the spots act as a kind of untruthful signal to deter moa and other herbivores from eating it.

“I also noticed that the underside of the lancewood leaf changes colour as the plant develops. Small seedlings are light green underneath the leaf, but that turns dark red when it reaches sapling stage. It changes back to green when the plant is fully grown.”

Patrick used spectral analysis techniques to test whether the dark red colouration makes the leaves more conspicuous to herbivores looking up from below. “The higher contrast of dark red against the other green foliage happens when the leaves are most spikey and therefore best defended. In this phase of the plant’s life, it’s a more truthful warning to any bird planning to eat it—there’d be painful consequences.”

Patrick has been working at the Ministry for the Environment, and in 2016 will carry out post-doctoral research at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the United States.

For more information contact Amy Holmes on 04-463 5269 or

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The extraordinary life of Alan Hoverd

15 January 2016


Piecing together dozens of skeletons, helping to design and build the Coastal Ecology Laboratory, rounding up 15,000 rogue bees—Alan Hoverd’s 50 years with Victoria University could never be described as ordinary.

Victoria University's Coastal Ecology Laboratory was practically Alan's second home, where he kept marine specimens, maintained equipment and conducted his own research.

But after five decades he’s ready to hang up his lab coat and farewell the university that gave him many skills, experiences, friends, memories and tasks that he says ranged “from the sublime to the ridiculous”.

It was a very different era when Alan arrived at Victoria as a 16-year-old in 1965. He walked out of Wellington Boys’ College straight into Victoria’s Zoology Department as the University’s first technical trainee.

From his second day, when he found the laboratory’s human skeleton sitting in his chair wearing his lab coat, it was apparent that this was no average working environment.

The young Alan kept undergraduate laboratories in top condition, looked after the two tuatara and in-house rodents and prepared fish, rats and other animals for class dissections.

As the ‘general dogsbody’, he also made coffee for the technicians’ morning tea. This meant boiling water in the billy that rested on an asbestos mat over a Bunsen burner. He always washed the billy thoroughly beforehand, as it was likely he’d boiled items like cats’ heads in it earlier, while preparing teaching specimens.

Alan had always shown an artistic talent, and in an age where publications relied on hand-drawn images, his skills were soon put to good use. He drew and painted illustrations that were used as teaching aids, and many others were published in local and international books and journals.

Early in his career, Alan was afforded extra training opportunities in glassblowing, metalwork and histology, as well as time to study at Wellington Polytechnic, and then London University College on a Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship, while working at the Central Veterinary Centre in Surrey.

He rose through the ranks, becoming a technical team leader who manages staff servicing undergraduate teaching laboratories and coordinates the technical side of things, to keep things running smoothly. He is also involved on a few University committees.

The animal skeletons he has worked on—sharks, orangutans and rodents among them—are testament to some of his many skills. Armed with surgical instruments and taxidermy books, Alan pieced skeletons together, bone by bone, for research and teaching. “One time, an iguana skeleton arrived in a shoe box from Australia, in hundreds of pieces. Needless to say it was a challenge to get that accurate … and to this day I have no idea if the vertebrae are entirely in the right sequence.”

As a founding member of the University’s civil defence team, he was  involved in setting up a flying fox for a training exercise in 1979, which whizzed from the Easterfield building rooftop to the Rankine Brown building.

His ability to find unusual tasks has not waned in his later years. In January this year, he was a key player in rounding up and relocating 15,000 bees that had found a home in the walls of a University building.

Despite this, Alan feels he is now ready to step back from Victoria."I'll miss the students and my colleagues and all the interesting and highly qualified individuals, but I think 50 years is a good innings."

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Tiny enzymes play big role in anti-cancer research

11 January 2016

A $15,000 scholarship awarded to Victoria University of Wellington student Abigail Sharrock will support her quest to develop a new form of cancer treatment.

Abby SharrockAbigail, a PhD student in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences, is one of four students around New Zealand awarded a 2015 Earle Scholarship in Technology.

Administered by Universities New Zealand, the scholarships support postgraduate research into aspects of innovation and product development or bioprocess technology.

Abigail’s research will focus on understanding how specific enzymes—bacterial nitroreductase enzymes—can be used to develop new cancer therapies.

“These enzymes are proving an important tool in the development of new cancer therapies, as they can convert a non-toxic ‘prodrug’—a medication that is inactive until metabolised by the body—to a toxic drug that causes cell death,” says Abigail.

“We want to use this property to develop a cancer gene therapy, in which tumour-specific bacteria will deliver genes that instruct an enzyme to specifically kill cancerous cells.

“The research focuses on developing a treatment with minimal damage to healthy tissues. We will be able to confidently see if the enzymes are confined to the tumour—an important safety feature.”

Abigail says nitroreductase enzymes also contribute to understanding how different tissues and cells regenerate.

“Cell ablation therapy can be used to knock out certain cell types that will in turn mimic a diseased tissue state. This means we can look into how this disease state can be reversed or treated by testing compounds that promote cell regeneration.”

Abigail’s research is co-supervised by Associate Professor David Ackerley at Victoria and Professor Vic Arcus at the University of Waikato, and carried out in collaboration with researchers at John Hopkins University in the United States and the universities of Waikato and Auckland.

Conducting research that has a real-world, medical application has always been her goal, says Abigail.

“Biotechnology is an exciting and rapidly advancing field, and I’m excited to be working on this collaborative project that ultimately aims to improve the health and wellbeing of patients worldwide.”

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