Top medical researchers honoured

05 May 2016

New Zealand’s leading brain researcher and a talented eye researcher have received awards for their outstanding contributions to health research excellence.

The awards were made by the Health Research Council at the University of Auckland’s annual Celebrating Research Excellence Awards on Wednesday evening.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson and HRC Board Chair Dr Lester Levy presented internationally renowned brain researcher Distinguished Professor Richard Faull and eye specialist Dr Ilva Rupenthal with their Celebrating Research Excellence Awards as part of the HRC’s 25-year anniversary celebrations.

Dr Rupenthal is a senior lecturer with the University’s Department of Ophthalmology and the Director of the Department’s Buchanan Ocular Therapeutics Unit.

This is the first of a series of events organised by New Zealand’s leading institutions that the HRC is partnering with this year to celebrate health research.

Professor Faull has a long association with the HRC both as Director of the Centre for Brain Research at the University and Co-Director of the Brain Research New Zealand Centre for Research Excellence – a national research collaboration.

Since being awarded his first HRC project grant 25 years ago, Professor Faull has gone on to lead a further three more HRC-funded projects and four HRC-funded programmes in the area of neuro-degeneration in the human brain.

In 2005, Professor Faull was also awarded the HRC’s prestigious Liley Medal for his ground breaking work identifying that, contrary to previously held views, the brain can make new cells throughout life and repair itself.

He is part of the team working on a $5 million HRC-funded programme led by Professor Michael Dragunow, which aims to translate lab-based research into therapies for patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease.

Professor Kath McPherson says Professor Faull’s award recognises his outstanding research career at the University of Auckland, during which he has made a major contribution to the international fight against devastating neurological disorders.

The Centre for Brain Research, which Professor Faull directs and developed, is now one of the most distinguished neuroscience research centres in Australasia.

“Professor Faull’s contribution to health research goes beyond undertaking excellent research,” says Dr McPherson. “His passion has enabled him to champion brain research, attracting other researchers to build a world-class brain research team right here in New Zealand. “

“In the process, he has also managed to mentor and supervise 26 masters and honours students – all with first class honours – and 45 PhD students to completion.”

Professor Faull said he was humbled by this recognition.

He says “The HRC (and Medical Research Council previously) have been critical supporters of my research on human brain neurodegenerative diseases at every single step along my career. It’s been a hugely satisfying journey of unexpected discovery and excitement which has far exceeded even my wildest dreams and passion.”

Professor Faull says his research was especially satisfying because of the development of his strong links with the community of people with brain disease and by the huge support from his numerous clinical and neuroscience colleagues.

The HRC also recognised Dr Ilva Rupenthal with a Celebrating Research Excellence Award for her outstanding contribution to health research excellence as an emerging researcher at the University of Auckland.

Professor McPherson says that since completing her PhD eight years ago, Dr Rupenthal – a pharmaceutical scientist working alongside clinician-researchers – has shown excellent progression in her research career.

She has already received a HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant followed by the HRC’s prestigious $500,000 Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship, and was appointed as the inaugural Director of the University’s Buchanan Ocular Therapeutics Unit in the  Department of Ophthalmology.

“Ilva’s cutting-edge research in developing smart eye implants that can slowly release medication over time not only has the potential to greatly reduce treatment costs, but also to significantly enhance treatment efficacy, and most importantly, the quality of life for the growing number of New Zealanders who live with debilitating eye diseases,” says Professor McPherson.

Dr Rupenthal says she hopes to secure a tenure track position at the University of Auckland by the end of her Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship, with the aim of advancing to Associate Professor within five years.

“Jumping the hurdle from being a postdoctoral research fellow under another principal investigator to an independent researcher can be quite difficult, especially with the limited funding opportunities available to emerging researchers,” says Dr Rupenthal.

“These two HRC grants supported me immensely in overcoming this hurdle and becoming an independent research leader and internationally recognised expert in the area of ocular drug delivery.”


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Suzi Phillips

Media Advisor for Medical and Health Sciences.