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Issue 367 | 13 February 2015 | Previous Issues

A personal message from the Dean

Welcome to the latest edition of the Dean’s Diary.

I am pleased to share some of the more recent milestones and achievements of our academic staff and clinical colleagues in our partner hospitals, supporting agencies and generous donors.

You will have noted there is a new format to the Dean’s Diary using a click-through email linking to stories that are posted on our website. One of the advantages of this new format is that it takes you directly to where each Dean’s Diary is permanently stored as a web page and can be referenced anytime in the future. I’m sure you would agree that the old email version was so easy to lose in the vast number of other emails we all receive. I do hope you like the new format.

This week I am proud to announce the establishment of a new philanthropic chair in the area of adolescent mental health, an extremely important area of health to New Zealand. It is perhaps germane for me to highlight here just how much we are reliant on and so greatly appreciate the generous support of donors and our community partners, enabling us to do the things that really make a difference.


John Fraser PhD FRSNZ

Dean, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

The University of Auckland


One of our brightest stars returns to the University of Auckland and CBR

Image of Dr Melanie Cheung
Dr Melanie Cheung

The Centre for Brain Research (CBR) is pleased to welcome back Dr Melanie Cheung. Dr Cheung earned her PhD here at the University of Auckland - Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

Dr Cheung has made Huntington’s disease research her career focus, and her commitment to the field was recognised in 2014. She was awarded The Huntington’s Disease Society of America’s Distinguished Leadership Award.

The Society’s award recognises for exemplary dedication and leadership in international research that benefits people and families affected by Huntington’s disease.

The magazine ‘MindFood’ recently featured Dr Cheung in its  ‘Celebrating Women’ Series, where she outlines the beginnings of her passion for science.

Dr Cheung recently returned from a Fulbright New Zealand Fellowship with Professor Emeritus Michael Merzenich at Brain Plasticity Institute, Posit Science in San Francisco. Professor Merzenich is a world pioneer in neuroplasticity research. Last year Dr Cheung received a Rangahau Hauora HRC project grant to test the efficacy of a brain plasticity-based training therapy for Huntington’s disease (which she developed during her Fulbright scholarship).

This research uses Kaupapa Māori methodologies in partnership with Māori Huntington’s whanau from Taranaki, Gisborne, Whakatane, Northland, Waikato and Auckland. The Te Karere television programme profiled Dr Cheung’s work last week. I encourage you to view the programme and hear Melanie discuss the implications of her findings.

The use of Kaupapa Māori approaches to neuroscience research has played a critical part in Dr Cheung’s research career to date. During her time in San Francisco, supported by both Professors Faull and Merzenich Melanie also gained huge experience with indigenous populations in North America.

Through those experiences Melanie is further developing the close and reciprocal interactions between the CBR and Māori, and will use her most recent project grant to advance an international collaboration with Professor Merzenich and Associate Professor Chris Hess at UCSF, and clinical collaborations with Dr Greg Finucane and Jo Dysart from ADHB, Dr Margaret Dudley from AUT and Associate Professor Lynette Tippett from CBR.


Oncology award for anatomic pathologist focused on genetic changes

Image of From left:  Professor Cristin Print, Dr Nicole Kramer and Brian McMath, Chairman, The Newmarket Rotary Charitable Foundation in the oncology research lab
From left: Professor Cristin Print, Dr Nicole Kramer and Brian McMath, Chairman, The Newmarket Rotary Charitable Foundation in the oncology research lab

Congratulations to Dr Nicole Kramer, an anatomic pathologist at Auckland Hospital who is the 2015 recipient of the ‘Ross Craig Oncology Award’ from the Newmarket Rotary Charitable Foundation.

Each year the Foundation supports an oncology internship at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

Dr Kramer will work on the genetic changes that underpin cancers arising from hormone secreting cells of the pancreas, spreading her internship over several months.

This scheme allows cancer specialists in training to work in the research laboratory of Professor Cristin Print for an intensive four to six weeks. There they participate first hand in research into the genetic abnormalities that underlie cancer.  

The Foundation named this year’s award in honour of the late Ross Craig who passed away in 2014. Ross was a founding trustee of the Newmarket Rotary Charitable Foundation, a Newmarket Rotarian for 38 years and past District Rotary Governor.

Mr Brian McMath, Chairman of the Newmarket Rotary Charitable Foundation, announced the award. It was granted under the umbrella of the Auckland Academic Health Alliance (AAHA).

The Alliance strengthens a 40-year relationship between the University of Auckland and the Auckland District Health Board. It aims to inform research and invigorate clinical teaching.

The AAHA also focuses on speeding up the delivery to patients of the relevant scientific breakthroughs and advances in medical care.

Through the work of the AAHA, we can expect speedier pathways that help commercialise the research that has been pioneered and developed collaboratively by hospital and university researchers and clinicians.


Zebrafish and Tuberculosis findings reported in leading international science journal, Nature

Image of Dr Stefan Oehlers (right) with Dr David Tobin
Dr Stefan Oehlers (right) with Dr David Tobin

On 29 January 2015, one of our former graduate students, Dr Stefan Oehlers, published a paper in Nature, the leading international science journal. The paper opens up a new front in understanding and possibly treating tuberculosis (TB).     

Stefan is well known at the FMHS; he was president of the Postgraduate Students’ Association and helped run HealthEx. His PhD thesis was one of the first to be submitted under the ‘thesis with publication’ system.  

Whilst studying here at the University of Auckland, Stefan was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Best Doctoral Thesis Award. Dr Oehlers is now undertaking a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke Medical Centre in the group of Dr David Tobin.

The paper published in Nature illustrates a successful on-going collaboration between Dr Oehlers' PhD lab and his new research home in the USA.

Initiated in Auckland, the tuberculosis research continued as a collaboration between Dr David Tobin and Professor Phil Crosier, who was Stefan’s PhD supervisor at our faculty’s School of Medical Sciences.   

Another of our PhD students in the Crosier group is one of co-authors on the paper published in Nature; Dr Kazuhide Okuda. 

Dr Kazuhide Okuda, who has experience in vascular biology, undertook some of the microscopic imaging work reported. He also gained his PhD at the University of Auckland under the supervision of Professor Crosier.

The paper describes how the zebrafish was used to model a version of TB that closely resembles human disease.

Zebrafish are transparent and this study relied on microscopic evaluation of granuloma formation, a process that has previously been thought to be used by the body to contain invading TB organisms.

It was discovered that the developing granulomas were intimately associated with angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels.

The TB-infected fish were treated with anti-angiogenesis drugs and this not only halted the development of granulomas but also decreased the numbers of TB organisms and was associated with increased survival.

According to Stefan, a new treatment strategy ‘strangles the pathogen’ and better enables the immune system to fight the infection.   

The authors anticipate the discovery may open up new avenues not previously considered in the development of drugs to treat TB.

It is a delight to witness the progress and success of a former graduate student and to see first-hand how they are often the conduit to highly productive international collaborations. Congratulations to both Stefan and the Crosier group for a brilliant piece of research published in the world’s most prestigious science journal, revealing how Mycobacterium tuberculosis protects itself with a surrounding granuloma and offers new treatment therapies.


Inaugural Cure Kids Duke Family Chair in Youth and Adolescent Mental Health

Image of Professor Sally Merry
Professor Sally Merry

I am delighted to announce the appointment of Professor Sally Merry to the inaugural Cure Kids Duke Family Chair in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. This new endowed Chair is supported by Cure Kids through the very generous donation of Rod and Patricia Duke.

This Chair is a result of discussions between the University and Cure Kids to partner together to address New Zealand’s continuing problems with child and adolescent mental health. After an international search it is pleasing to note that the best person for this role, Sally Merry, Head of the Department of Psychological Medicine was within our midst.

“This Chair will be supporting research that looks at the major risks for poor mental health and how we avoid those. It is a wonderful opportunity for making strategic links with groups here at the University, looking at the changes that may lead to improved mental health or impact on mental health.”

Professor Sally Merry says “This new appointment provides a wonderful opportunity to pull together some of our initiatives to try to improve mental health in young people across New Zealand (and across all ethnic groups here), by doing a mixture of practical research and evaluation. We want to check that what we are doing is working, and look at how we can support work that is relevant for our local communities. Working with Māori and Pacific communities will be a particular aim.

 “This position provides a catalyst to ensure that we can maximise leverage from our work, to increase collaboration within New Zealand and also take advantage of links to major research groups overseas,” she says. “This new position increases the number of people doing work in research in infant, child and adolescent mental health and allows us to make the most of a national approach. This is a small country with innovative people. We will take advantage of this to collaborate nationally.”