Centre for Brain Research

Applied Translational Genetics Group

Working together to improve lives


Big challenges require big teams

Amongst one of the biggest groups of the CBR, this group uses genetic and molecular biology tools to discover the basis for natural variation in human and other species with a particular focus on human disease. Part of their approach is to develop model systems to investigate disease processes particularly in neurodegenerative disorders and for application in the identification of therapies.

In Professor Snell's own words "we work together as a collective because our questions can only be answered by the combined efforts of a multi-disciplinary team. We have established a critical mass of genetics expertise through working collaboratively with the dairy industry and together we can tackle some of the major health problems facing the 21’st century.”

The ultimate purpose of our research is to improve the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. The group has had a long-term focus on finding treatments for late onset neurodegenerative disorders. They are also addressing the increasingly prevalent problem of autism though the discovery of genetic causes in individual as a first step towards helping families.  

Providing families with accurate diagnostics and useful therapies is what really motivates this team to achieve.

The group has made and continues to make a major contribution to the discovery of important DNA variation used for the selection of superior animals for the dairy industry.

If you'd like to listen to Russell, Jessie and Whitney explain their research interests and why they are so passionate about the translational potential of their discoveries, click here.

Principal investigators

Professor Russell Snell

Professor Snell is a pioneering geneticist, who was part of the team which first identified the Huntington’s gene, more than 20 years ago. Russell is also the founder and informal leader of this research team. 

His research focuses on gene identification, modeling disease processes, and drug discovery in various genetic disorders, including Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Professor Snell facilitated the formation of the Minds for Minds Network, to better understand autism spectrum disorder. Using genome sequencing, he is able to identify the specific DNA variations that are responsible for this neurodevelopmental disorder.

For more information about Professor Snell's research, visit his profile page here.


Dr Jessie Jacobsen

Jessie received a Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship to complete a PhD on Huntington’s disease at The University of Auckland.  Her doctoral research won her the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year award in 2007. 

Following the completion of her PhD she received a Neurological Foundation of New Zealand Philip Wrightson Postdoctoral Fellowship to study at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.  During this time she developed an interest in complex genetic disorders, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder and other neurodevelopmental disorders. 

After three years in Boston she received a repatriation fellowship from the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand to begin research into Autism Spectrum Disorder at the Centre for Brain Research.

In 2012, Jessie was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in recognition of her novel contributions to neurodevelopmental disorders. Jessie is also one of the founders of the Minds for Minds Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Network. 

For more information about Dr Jacobsen's research, visit her profile page here

Associate Professor Klaus Lehnert

For more information about Associate Professor Lehnert's research, visit his profile page here

Dr Pritika Narayan

Pritika is a Brain Research New Zealand (BRNZ) post-doctoral research fellow and has recently joined the Snell lab to investigate the epigenome of the Huntington’s disease sheep model compared to the human context.

Dr Narayan completed her PhD with Professors Mike Dragunow and Richard Faull at the Centre for Brain Research where she studied histone modifications that are altered in Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.

This work will be extended through various techniques now (such as ChIP-sequencing, Nanostring, NGS), thanks to funding from HRC (pacific emerging researcher first grant) and the University of Auckland’s strategic research initiatives fund.

Pritika also brings specific skills in high content screening and will be working with HD sheep-derived primary cells to develop a drug screening and discovery platform.

For more information about Dr Narayan's research, visit her profile page here

Team members












Dr Suzanne Reid - Research Fellow

Molecular Biologist

Dr Renee Handley - Research Fellow

Molecular Biologist and Geneticist

Dr Ken Ly - Research Fellow


Dr Matt Littlejohn - Senior Scientist

Livestock Improvement Corporation

Whitney Whitford - PhD candidate

Genetics of Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Brendan Swan - PhD candidate

Genetics of autism

Natasha McKean - PhD candidate

Transgenic Alzheimer's disease model

Zach McLean - PhD candidate

Animal reproduction

Emily Mears - PhD candidate

Transgenic Huntington's disease model

Thomas Lopdell - PhD candidate

Bovine dairy genetics

Tania Law - PhD candidate

Livestock Improvement Corporation

Victoria Hawkins - Master's student

Genetics of Alzheimer's disease

Shani Lawrence - Master's student

Drug development

Lydia Velzian - Master's student

Genetics of ASD

Chris Samson - Master's student

Genetics of ASD

Andrew Jiang - Honours student

Parkinson's disease



  • Uncover the molecular basics of disease and develop new therapies.
  • Discover human genetic mutations through whole genome sequencing.
  • Develop large animal and cell culture models to understand disease mechanisms and treatments.

Areas of interest

  • Genetics
  • Model systems
  • Molecular biology
  • Pharmaceutical development and testing 
  • Epigenetics
  • Human genome sequencing
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Huntington's disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Cardiac disorders
  • Biochemical disorders
  • Bovine dairy genetics
  • Goat dairy genetics 




For a full list of publications, please visit the following team profiles;

Professor Russell Snell

Associate Professor Klaus Lehnert

Dr Jessie Jacobsen

Dr Pritika Narayan