NEXT NZ Woman of the Year, Health & Science - Associate Professor Bronwen Connor

18 October 2013
Associate Professor Bronwen Connor
Associate Professor Bronwen Connor

For FMHS/UniNews/Staff intranet

22 October 2013

Health and Science woman of the year

Researcher, Associate Professor in Pharmacology and Director of the Neuro-Discovery Facility, Associate Professor Bronwen Connor was recently named as the Health and Science recipient in the NEXT magazine Woman of the Year awards.

“What’s great about this award is that women are generally not promoted as science leaders” says Bronwen whose parents where both role models.

Her father is an engineer with additional degrees in math and physics and was her mentor as she moved into management and leadership roles.

“While bringing up her young daughters my mother also studied part time at university.   My parents have always supported me, always behind me 100 per cent,” she says.

Bronwen is based at the Centre for Brain Research at The University of Auckland, where she undertook her postgraduate research.

She then spent three years as the Neurological Foundation of NZ Wrightson Fellow undertaking postdoctoral study in the use of gene therapy for the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease at Northwestern University in Chicago, before returning to The University of Auckland to the department of Pharmacology.    

Her ground-breaking work involves the direct reprogramming of adult human skin cells to brain stem cells. Her technology allows researchers to take human skin cells, over-express two of the genes involved in brain development and transform the skin cells to become brain stem cells.  The brain stem cells can then be grown into any type of mature brain cell.

Her technique is unique in that it uses adult human tissue which negates the use of embryonic stem cells and the ethical issues associated with their use.  Most importantly, this technology allows the use of a patients own skin cells to generate brain stem cells, removing issues of rejection.

Bronwen’s unique technology allows researchers to generate human brain cells from patients with neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease or autism, in order to gain a better understanding of the cause of these disorders. In addition, new drug therapies can be identified and tested on disease-specific human brain cells.  Alternatively, using this technology, brain stem cells can be generated for transplantation into areas of brain cell loss or damage due to disease or injury.

Her innovative and unique technique follows the earlier work of Nobel prize winner, Professor Yamanaka, the director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application at Kyoto University.

Bronwen is currently fundraising to further develop the Neuro-Discovery Unit by adding a Human Brain Stem Cell facility so that her innovative technique can be more accessible in fundamental research, and to further expand the advanced research capabilities of the Centre for Brain Research.