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Issue 366 | 9th February 2015

A personal message from the Dean

Happy New Year and a very warm welcome back to everyone.

You must agree that this has been a beautiful summer and I hope you all feel as I do, well rested and raring to go for 2015!

Tam and I had a wonderful three weeks of sun, sea, sand and friends (and I proudly declare that I only looked at my email three times).

It’s hard to believe that we are already into February and there are only 11 months until Christmas.

2015 holds great promise for our faculty as we start the year off with our AMC accreditation visit in the first week of March.  

There has been an enormous amount of work from a large number of people to put together the necessary documentation for this accreditation process and I thank everyone for their commitment.

I am confident that the University of Auckland medical programme will receive the big tick it deserves. 

There have been a number of other important milestones and exciting achievements for our faculty during the holiday period, and we feature some of the more significant of those below - our first Dean’s Diary for 2015.

Regards, John Fraser, PhD, FRSNZ

Dean, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences
The University of Auckland


Congratulations to Ross McCormick, our faculty’s newest professor emeritus

Image of Professor Emeritus Ross McCormick
Professor Emeritus Ross McCormick

It gives me great pleasure to extend my personal congratulations to the now Professor Emeritus Ross McCormick.

The University Council conferred the title of Professor Emeritus to Ross on his retirement in recognition of his honourable service and career at the University of Auckland.

Professor McCormick retired in December 2014 following an outstanding academic career that included several senior roles including 10 years as our Associate Dean Postgraduate.

In that role Ross directed the faculty’s successful Doctoral and Masters programs as well as supervising his own PhD students.

A member of our Centre for Addiction Research, Professor McCormick has mainly focused his research on the translation of research about the best management of drug and alcohol impaired clients into primary care clinical practice. This translational research involves working with all stakeholders to achieve evidence-based change.

Nationally, Professor McCormick’s research means he has been called on to work with and to use scientific evidence to influence decisions in the public interest.

These decision-makers include the: Ministry of Health, the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, the Chapter of Addiction Medicine Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), the alcohol industry, non-university research groups, professional groups, alcohol and drug lobby groups, and the public.

On behalf of all the faculty I would like to thank Emeritus Professor McCormick for his long and outstanding contributions to FMHS and wish him the very best in his retirement.


Global recognition in biopharma innovation and entrepreneurship contests

Image of Dr Graeme Fielder
Dr Graeme Fielder

It is a pleasure to extend the warm congratulations of our faculty to two more of our high-achieving University of Auckland medical research graduates.

Along with their highly innovative biopharma company, Mesopharm Therapeutics, Dr Graeme Fielder and Dr Francis Hunter are receiving well-deserved recognition on the world stage of biopharma.

Last year Drs Fielder and Hunter won their section of the ‘Breast Cancer Start-up Challenge’, which is a global business-plan contest that is hosted in the US.

This year, they are among an elite group of semi-finalists in another global healthcare accelerator contest; theirs is one of 638 applications from 50 countries competing in Onestart 2015 - largest global biotech accelerator competition in the world.

As part of the competition Drs Fielder and Hunter will take part in a Onestart boot camp, to be held in Silicon Valley later this month (20-21 February).

Graeme Fielder is CEO of Mesopharm and was previously a researcher and doctoral student based in the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute.

Dr Fielder was also a former Chief Executive of SPARK, the University of Auckland’s annual $100,000 entrepreneurship challenge. 

Graeme is now the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship, completing an MBA at Stanford University in California.

Dr Francis Hunter is the Chief Scientific Officer of Mesopharm - and is also a SPARK alumnus. He was a top University of Auckland graduate who won many awards and scholarships.

Francis is now an oncology researcher and holder of the John Gavin Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University-based Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre.

Run by the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable and SR One (a bio-venture company), ‘Onestart 2015’ supports young bio-entrepreneurs and aims to catalyse innovation in health care. 

The Onestart boot camp in February will provide Graeme and Francis with access to top industry mentors. They will receive help with their presentations to a panel of industry experts – all in preparation for the Onestart final competition later in the year.

These ‘biotech accelerator’ competitions are part of a global trend towards big pharmaceutical companies out-sourcing innovation to academia - and to early biotech companies like Mesopharm.

It is so rewarding for the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences to see Dr Graeme Fielder and Dr Francis Hunter achieving in the biopharma world at the highest levels.

Our faculty team will follow the careers of these two graduates and members of our alumni with great interest and warm regard.


Tobacco treatment hiding in plain sight – clinical trial attracts international attention

Image of Professor Dr Natalie Walker
Dr Natalie Walker

Congratulations to the team of researchers at The National Institute for Health Innovation, at our School of Population Health - Professor Chris Bullen and Dr Natalie Walker and their team.

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published the findings of Professor Bullen and Dr Walker from their clinical trial titled, ‘Cytisine — A Tobacco Treatment Hiding in Plain Sight’.

The note-worthy study provided a direct comparison of cytisine with an established, first-line smoking-cessation therapy.

The randomised trial, found that (for continuous tobacco abstinence at one month) cytisine was superior to nicotine-replacement therapy.

The study found that cytisine remained superior to nicotine-replacement therapy at a 6-month follow-up in one of two typical measures of long-term efficacy.

Cytisine is a natural, plant-based compound that has been used in smoking cessation for more than 40 years in Eastern Europe and is commercially produced in Bulgaria and Poland. The trial followed 1310 adult daily smokers who called the national Quitline in New Zealand.

I encourage you to read the article and the accompanying editorial from Prof Nancy Rigotti, Harvard University and warmly congratulate our School of Population Health and the team at The National Institute for Health Innovation on their achievements.

Funded by the Health Research Council (HRC) of New Zealand the trial is one of a number of studies the Institute has undertaken to find innovative options for smokers to stop smoking to achieve a smoke-free New Zealand by 2025

It is always a great delight to see FMHS research published in the world’s most prestigious medical journal. Only the most notable and transforming research is accepted and only after serious peer review. This research has the potential to translate into improved health for those seeking to abstain from tobacco use.


International attention for Liggins Institute research that proves benefits of steroid treatment pre-birth

Liggins Instutute

In collaboration with Australian colleagues, our researchers from the University of Auckland had found there were important benefits from treatments involving repeat antenatal steroids given to pregnant mothers at risk of delivering before 32 weeks.

However many doctors were concerned about exposing babies to steroids, thinking this would increase the risk of long-term complications like diabetes and heart disease. As a result they were reluctant to use the promising treatment.

The latest New Zealand study in this area of treatment from our researchers at the University of Auckland is the first to show that repeat doses of antenatal steroids do not adversely impact the later cardiovascular and metabolic health of those premature babies.

The journal Paediatrics, the highest ranked international paediatric journal, recently published the report from this latest study. Internationally, it is the first study to report that repeat-steroids before birth are safe up to school age.

A clinical trial on the effect of antenatal steroids on fetal lung maturation and carried out in Auckland by Professor Sir Graham (Mont) Liggins and Associate Professor Ross Howie was published in 1972. This first study pioneered research on the use of steroids for babies at risk of a premature birth.

Since that pioneering work led by Sir Graham Liggins, researchers at the University of Auckland have published many world-leading studies into the use of these steroids for babies at risk of premature birth.

These studies include major New Zealand and Australian collaborations by leading New Zealand paediatrician, Distinguished Professor Jane Harding and obstetrician Professor Caroline Crowther, both from the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland.

The most recent study involved following up all of the six to eight year old New Zealand children in the original Australasian repeat doses trial (ACTORDS). An impressive 98 percent of them were traced with 81 percent agreeing to take part in the study.

The field work for the study involved gathering data from these children around New Zealand took two and a half years. Dr McKinlay conducted this field work as part of his four year doctoral studies. His paper from this study won him the Paediatric Academic Society’s best PhD student research award in 2011 and the University of Auckland’s top Doctoral Thesis Award in 2014.


Professor John Funder, former chair of the Liggins Institute Scientific Advisory Board receives honour

Warm congratulations to Professor John Funder, a former Chair of the Liggins Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board.

In January, Professor Funder was recognised with the award of Companion of the Order to Australia in the Australia Day Honours for 2015.

The honour recognises Professor Funder’s eminent service to medicine, particularly to cardiovascular endocrinology.

Professor Funder is a renowned researcher, author and educator, and dedicated to the development of academic health science centres, and to mental illness, obesity, and Indigenous eye-health programs.

The Companion of the Order of Australia is the highest level of recognition in the Order of Australia after Knights and Dames.

For many years Professor Funder has been a tireless supporter and advocate for the Liggins Institute.

His drive to increase the numbers and quality of papers published by its PhD students led the Liggins Institute to name its annual prize for the best student publication - the John Funder Award.

As the sole judge of this award, Professor Funder remains highly involved in the work of the Liggins Institute here in Auckland, carefully reading the published student manuscripts (and the associated commentaries and letters to the editor) as well as scoping the associated research field.