Student research showcased at The University of Auckland

15 September 2011

Further research along a theme developed at The University of Auckland almost 40 years ago has seen Biomedical Honours student Miriam Koome take out the top prize at this year’s HealtheX conference held at the University last Friday.

Research from the 1970s by pioneers such as Professor Mont Liggins showed that steroids can help pre-term babies’ lungs mature and improve their chances of survival. However the other side of this research is that steroids can potentially inhibit some of the baby’s own defence mechanisms such as reducing brain activity to cope with reduced oxygen supply. Miriam’s research set out to find if this was the case with dexamethasone, a reasonably common and powerful steroid.


Miriam, pictured with AMRF president Jeff Todd, took out the top prize in the ‘Pre-Doctoral’ category at HealtheX and was subsequently named as the “Auckland Medical Research Foundation Emerging Researcher for 2011”, the overall top award at the conference.

Professor Laura Bennet, supervisor for Miriam Koome’s winning preterm study says: “Miriam is an amazing student who has a fantastic enthusiasm for research and her studies will make an important contribution to our understanding about how to better care for preterm babies before and after they are born. Her success at Healthex is a great recognition of her hard work and perseverance in the laboratory in handling a very complex difficult topic. She has a passion for getting things right, and this is because she knows that this is vital when it comes time to take her studies from the lab bench to a babies bedside.” 

Now in its fifth year, the student-led conference highlighted some of the innovative and ground-breaking research by both graduate and postgraduate students spanning topics from population-based interventions to the fundamentals of disease processes at cellular levels. Over 80 entrants competed across the categories of medicine, population health and biomedicine.


Jennifer Johnson placed runner up in the pre-Doctoral category for her research into association between school climate and wellbeing among students of New Zealand secondary schools.


First place in the Applied and Clinical Science category went to Debbie Harris from the Liggins Institute whose research at Auckland and Waikato Hospitals looks at best treatment for newborns with low blood sugars. Michael Jen Jie Chu took second place in ths category for his project on the analysis of mitochondrial function in chronic liver diseas which suggests that outpatient assessment of liver function is possible using this technique.


First and second in the Biomedical category were awarded to vision-based researchers James McKelvie for his study into a cell-based alternative to traditional corneal transplants and to  Irene Vorontsova for her work on diabetic cataracts.


The poster competition prize was awarded to Rebekah Bower from the Department of Anatomy and Radiology for her poster showing how her research on identifying possible amalin receptor subunits in the brain. This research may have implications in the treatment of diabetes.  Kathryn Burns (Dept of Molecular Medicine) took second prize for her project with using different epigenetic treatments to affect human liver enzymes.


HealthEx 2011 chair Alexandra Mowday says: “HealtheX 2011 was a huge success. We are very proud of the research presented and the event itself. The support we received from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation and the Maurice and Phyllis Paykel Trust was really invaluable and has helped establish this event as an excellent showcase of health research being conducted at The University of Auckland.’

Healthex 2011 Winner

Biomedical honours student Miriam Koome, won the best oral presentation and overall AMRF Emerging Researcher Award at the HealthEx showcase held at Grafton Campus on last Friday.

The student-led conference attracted over 80 entries of the innovative and ground-breaking research by both graduate and postgraduate students competing for a total prize pool of $11,000 across the categories of medicine, population health and biomedicine. 
Miriam’s winning presentation entitled “Does dexamethasone increase injury following asphyxia in the preterm fetus?” considered the use and safety of steroids as a standard clinical treatment for preterms babies.

Her study builds on work pioneered by New Zealand researchers in the 1970s which gave expectant mums steroids in order to help preterm babies, whose lungs were not fully developed, breathe properly.

Professor Laura Bennet from the University’s Fetal Physiology and Neuroscience Group and Miriam’s supervisor says: “These steroids help baby’s lungs mature and improve their chances of survival. However, while steroids help lungs, we know less about their effects on other organs like the brain. Some research shows it can reduce some types of brain damage, but other studies suggest that under some conditions it may increase the risk of injury”. 

The Fetal Physiology and Neuroscience group at the University of Auckland have studied the preterm brain extensively. Their research has shown that the unborn baby has an amazing capacity to protect itself during adverse events such as reduced oxygen supply which can happen during labour. Importantly, this fetal defence response requires the baby to dramatically reduce the activity of its brain to conserve energy supplies.

Miriam Koome set out to answer the question of whether  steroids might impair the ability of some babies to protect their brain, thus causing injury. Her early findings show that there may well be cause for concern with steroids impairing the protective brain activity response, and the amount of blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Miriam is now working to determine if this leads to greater brain injury.

Professor Bennet says: “Steroids will continue to be given clinically because we have no other treatment that comes close to improving the survival of these vulnerable newborns. Thus the importance of Miriam’s studies is to help provide vital knowledge about which babies may be at risk of injury allowing clinicians to better target those babies who may need to be more extensively monitored or receive specific treatments.” 

Further information on HealtheX can be found at

Megan Fowlie, Communications Adviser
P: +64 9 373 7599 extn 83257
M: +64 (0)21 802 143