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Issue 1 | 11 September 2015 |

Message from the Head of School

Professor Paul Donaldson
Professor Paul Donaldson

Dear Colleagues,

Welcome to our first edition of the School of Medical Sciences newsletter.

As the School is not only the biggest in the University but also one of the most successful, we want to take the opportunity to share the success of our high achievers, both individuals and teams!

This internal newsletter is for internal staff only, and provides us with a forum in which to record and celebrate the achievements of very talented staff and students that make up our School community.

Soon, we'll also publish our external newsletter to further share and celebrate the important advancements in medical and health sciences.

We want our articles to focus on the people and the strategic thinking behind the important initiatives and milestones of the school, and encourage you to submit your stories.
I look forward to receiving your submissions and any feedback you would like to share on the achievements of our amazing team.


Regards, Paul

Professor Paul Donaldson
Head of School, School of Medical Sciences
Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences
The University of Auckland


Research developments

Grant Sucesses

HRC Project and Programme Grants

  • Associate Professor Bronwen Connor, Pharmacology
    Cellular reprogramming: A unique approach to understanding Huntington's disease.
    $1,190,497, 36 months
  • Associate Professor Alan Davidson, Molecular Medicine and Pathology
    The role of the Pax-Notch pathway in kidney disease.
    $1,067,513, 36 months
  • HRC Feasibility Study Award
    Professor Michael Findlay
    (Cancer Trials New Zealand), Dr David Porter (Auckland Regional Cancer and Blood Service), Professor Bruce Baguley (Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre), Associate Professor Tony Lambert (School of Psychology) and Associate Professor Katrina Sharples (University of Otago/Cancer Trials New Zealand)
    Project: Magnesium for Endocrine Related Cognitive Problems in Breast Cancer.
    $149,995, 12 months
  • The Eru Pōmare Postdoctoral Fellowship
    Dr Kimiora Henare,
    Molecular Medicine and Pathology
    Teaching immune cells old tricks: An innovative strategy for treating cancer.
    $388,172, 48 months
  • Dr Fiona McBryde, Physiology
    Hypertension after stroke - therapeutic or pathological?
    $1,055,738, 36 months
  • Professor Mark McKeage, Pharmacology
    Lung cancer genetic testing in New Zealand
    $1,182,641, 36 months
  • Associate Professor Thomas Proft, Molecular Medicine and Pathology
    TeeVax - a novel vaccine against group A streptococcus? 
    $1,122,354, 36 months
  • Cancer Society of New Zealand Project Grant
    Dr Francis Hunter
     (ACSRC)received a project grant his first as a PI from the Cancer Society of NZ.
    Targeting tumour hypoxia for personalised treatment of head and neck cancer.
    Total budget $106, 248
  • CoRE Brain Research NZ fellowship for 2 years
    Dr Kathryn Jones
    , Pharmacology
    Parkinson’s disease in a dish: using novel mRNA reprogramming technology for disease modelling.
  • Sanofi NZ Society for the Study of Diabetes Research 2015 Award
    Dr Shiva Reddy,
    Molecular Medicine and Pathology.


Teaching news

The School is extremely fortunately to have the services of a dedicated team of Senior Tutors and Professional Teaching Fellows to support the delivery of our teaching programmes. In recent years the co-location of this team in the SMS Teaching Hub has ensured that teaching expertise and innovations can be shared across all the courses taught in the School.

A current strategic initiative in this space is to provide dedicated Tutor support to all large laboratory intensive 2nd and 3rd year courses. This investment in teaching support is resourced by utilising the FTE buyout component of over headed grants to reduce the teaching load of all academics across the School.

Professor Paul Donaldson was awarded the Butland Award for Excellence in Research Supervision and Mr Peter Riordan was awarded the Butland Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching.

Professor Nick Holford was invited to be the inaugural Visiting Professor in a competitive application to the University of Pavia, Italy. He visited Pavia last week for five days and gave lectures to undergraduates and seminars to PhDs and post-docs on clinical pharmacology and quantitative modelling topics. Although the University of Pavia was founded in the 14th century this is the first time they have had a formal Visiting Professor programme. Professor Holford was selected as the first person to receive this honour.

Dr Francis Hunter was selected as finalist in the Merck Serono Innovation cup (one of thirty finalists worldwide).

This year we welcome some new and not so new faces to the team.

Image of Dr Sebastien Barfoot
Dr Sebastien Barfoot

Dr Sebastien Barfoot recently moved to Auckland to take a job as a PTF in the department of Anatomy and Radiology here in the FMHS to cover Dr Keryn Reilly’s maternity leave. Currently he lectures the 2nd year med students and run their dissection classes alongside Peter Riordan. He was also involved with the 3rd year Med students’ dissections with Dr Mirjalili.  

His academic background is in Anatomy, Forensic Anthropology and Biological Anthropology and he has conducted research into sexual dimorphism in Southeast Asian populations as well as age-estimation from the epiphyses of the elbow.

In his spare time he enjoys sketching and getting out into the wilderness and enjoying the beautiful natural landscape here in NZ. If he can get in some surfing/ camping/ climbing/ skating/ all of the above then he is even happier.

He also continues to do gymnastics which he has trained and competed in for most of my life. And of course the occasional night out to party and go dancing is always welcome!


Dr Deanna Bell
Dr Deanna Bell

Dr Deanna Bell studied cancer pharmacology here at UoA with Dr McKeage and obtained her PhD in 2010. She worked for pharmacology from 2000 as a tutor then took permanent position 2006. She has been employed fulltime as a Professional Teaching Fellow since April 2015.

Deanna is interested in using problem based enquiry learning in a laboratory setting. Developing student’s critical thinking skills, logistics and numeracy for experimental design has been her focus for this semester and she hopes to write up this work in the future and present at the Ternz conference later this year.

On a personal note she has two daughters aged 4.5 and 6.5 years old, she loves cooking, chardonnay, reading science fiction novels and jogging.


Dr Rachelle Singleton
Dr Rachelle Singleton

Dr Rachelle Singleton has been a Professional Teaching Fellow in the School of Medical Sciences since April 2015.

She is an experienced biomedical scientist with a PhD in Molecular Medicine and Pathology and recent Post-Doctoral research experience at The University of Oxford.

She enjoys interacting with a diverse range of students with different learning styles and helping students understand difficult scientific concepts. Outside of the laboratory she loves to travel and cook for friends.

Dr Sunali Mehta
Dr Sunali Mehta

Dr Sunali Mehta graduated with a BE in Chemical engineering at Mumbai University in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) in India. She then followed this up by transitioning into the cancer research. Her initial research included developing methods and models to carry out pre-clinical testing of cytotoxic compounds at the University of Auckland.

Her doctoral research comprised of combining molecular methods, bioinformatics and clinicopathological information to increase the understanding of cancer biology and improve clinical outcomes.

She is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland developing bioinformatic and molecular methods to understand the complex interaction of TP53 and its family members in cancer biology. She is involved in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching through a 0.2 FTE appointment and is keen to help students with her experience to understand the importance of scientific research.


Dr Vivien Pybus
Dr Vivien Pybus

Dr Vivien Pybus has taken up the position as Professional Teaching Fellow in the Department of Molecular Medicine & Pathology. She loves teaching and working with students and has over 25 years’ university teaching experience.

This includes 6 years teaching Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology labs to Harvard Medical School students during her post-doctoral studies, and 12 years as Biology Professor at Kalamazoo College, a small, highly-ranked, undergraduate university in Michigan.

She also has department chair experience and teaching awards from students. She also has department chair and student advising experience, as well as teaching awards.

High impact papers

Jonathan Astin
Dr Jonathan Astin

Jonathan Astin (Research Fellow, Crosier Lab)

Phil and I were co-authors on a Nature paper that came out in late May.  

Warm congratulations to one of our research fellows Dr Jonathan Astin (Department of Molecular Medicine and Pathology) who has contributed to research into the human lymphatic system published in Nature.

Link to the paper here:

Lab of the month

Back row from the left: Tomoya Hasegawa, Pramuk Keerthisinghe, Leslie Sanderson, Lisa Lawrence, Kathy Crosier, Chris Hall, Jono Astin, Phil Crosier.  Front row from the left: Dever Britto, Pauline Misa, Lucia Du, Tiffany Eng
Back row from the left: Tomoya Hasegawa, Pramuk Keerthisinghe, Leslie Sanderson, Lisa Lawrence, Kathy Crosier, Chris Hall, Jono Astin, Phil Crosier. Front row from the left: Dever Britto, Pauline Misa, Lucia Du, Tiffany Eng

Our laboratory works on blood and lymphatic development, with this research being applied in clinical areas of inflammation and cancer. Much of our research uses the zebrafish model system, which offers powerful genetic and imaging approaches to provide insights into biology and disease. For example, using transgenic zebrafish where blood stem cells were marked with a Runx1 transcription factor reporter, we demonstrated the emergence of these stem cells from the wall of the aorta. When this reporter system was used in a model of bacterial infection, a new molecular pathway was discovered that connected infection with stem cell commitment to producing emergency granulocytes. 

A recent focus of our research is the intersection between inflammation and metabolism; a field known as immunometabolism. Many metabolic disorders have an underlying inflammatory component. For example in obesity, macrophages within adipose tissue release pro-inflammatory molecules. New work in the group has identified a gene encoding an enzyme that enables free fatty acids to be the fuel in the production of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species from activated macrophages. We are applying this knowledge in disease settings such as gout (together with Professor Nicola Dalbeth) and dermatitis. A new Marsden fund grant “Treating cutaneous inflammation by putting skin on a fat-free diet” commenced this year.

We provided the first comprehensive atlas of an embryonic lymphatic system and have discovered a new mechanism of lymphatic development. Current research seeks to uncover the guidance cues that drive development of lymphatic networks. We have developed models of lymphatic growth relevant to cancer metastasis and to inflammatory bowel disease.

The biological platforms we have developed in inflammation and lymphatics have been applied in drug discovery. Zebrafish are ideal for this work and we have used a drug repositioning strategy to identify existing drugs with previously unknown anti-inflammatory and anti-lymphatic activities. One of the anti-inflammatory drugs is entering a clinical trial in bronchiectasis, led by Dr Conroy Wong and funded by a recently awarded HRC Feasibility Study Grant.

The group is co-directed by Kathy and Phil Crosier. Senior Research Fellow Chris Hall leads the inflammatory research, while Research Fellow Jonathan Astin heads the lymphatics work. Lisa Lawrence is a Senior Research Technician working with Chris, while Pauline Misa is a part-time Senior Research Technician and MSc student working with Jono.  Lucia Du and Tiffany Eng are PhD students working with Chris and Jono, respectively. Denver Britto and Pramuk Keerthisinghe are MSc students. We have a visiting international PhD student, Tomoya Hasegawa, from the Tokyo Institute of Technology here for three months, working with Chris on new mechanisms of tissue regeneration following wounding.

Two PhD students have recently completed their doctorates. Kazuhide Okuda graduated in the May ceremony and he’s gone home to work at the Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation, Kuala Lumpur. We have provided Kazu with zebrafish lines to help begin his work in drug discovery from natural compounds found in Malaysia. Phil Crosier is going to visit Kazu in November and speak at the first Malaysian Zebrafish Users meeting. Leslie Sanderson is awaiting all her paperwork before she starts her post-doctoral position with Benoit Vanhollebeke at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Gosselies, Belgium.

We have had two Nature publications this year. A letter with one of our previous PhD students Stefan Oehlers, now at Duke Medical Centre, USA and Kazuhide Okuda highlighted a role for blood vessel growth in the progression of tuberculosis. Our Nature article resulted from a collaboration between Jonathan Astin and Professor Karina Yaniz at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. This provided new information on how cells are specified to become lymphatic; the earliest origins of the lymphatic system. Leslie Sanderson has a paper published in Developmental & Comparative Immunology on a new Irg-1 reporter transgenic line that she used in drug screening. We have another recent paper in the journal Disease Models & Mechanisms that resulted from collaborating with Professor Antony Segal’s group at University College London, UK on the role of optineurin in colitis.

Central to all of our research and the work of others in the School (including Alan Davidson, Stefan Bohlander and Andy Wood) is having a world-class zebrafish facility. When we began zebrafish work, we used locally made DIY tank systems. We are now in the midst of a complete School-funded zebrafish facility rebuild using specifically designed tank and support systems manufactured by Tecniplast in Italy. Tecniplast have made the facility an aquatic centre of excellence and we are looking forward to working with them on this. The new facility will have approximately 1,500 tanks and will continue to be managed by our School floor manager Alhad Mahagaonkar, with overall academic direction provided by Phil Crosier.   


Postgraduate successes

PhD students are the life blood of the School and currently we have 180 students enrolled in PhD projects. 

In 2015 to date we have welcomed 18 new PhD students. Moving forward, can supervisors please inform us when new students arrive and tell us of those who have successfully completed their oral exams.

We welcome Khanh Tran and Vahid Seyfoddin who received Cancer Society PhD Studentships and will be starting PhDs in Peter Shepherd’s Lab.

Congratulations to the following students who have recently successfully defended their theses:

  • Swapna Gannabathula – “Exploring the immunoregulatory properties of New Zealand honeys” Supervised by Associate Professor Geoff Krissansen

  • Zhignag Lin - “Modulation of Epigenetic regulation as a novel mechanism in anti-inflammatory and anticancer drugs” Supervised by Professor Lynn Ferguson

  • Leslie Sanderson – “Investigating the contribution of immunoresponsive gene 1 (Irg1) to macrophage functions and its relevance to disease” Supervised by Dr Chris Hall


From Lwft: Sheryl Tan and Rashika Karunasinghen
From Left: Sheryl Tan and Rashika Karunasinghen

Dean of Graduate Studies list

Rashika Karunasinghen and Sheryl Tan names havebeen placed on the 'Dean of Graduate Studies' list in recognition of excellence achieved in their PhD thesies. This award is made to only a few recipients each year from the large number of doctoral students completing their thesis.

  •  Rashika Karunasinghe “Hypoxic Spreading Depression (HSD) in the Substantia Nigra: An in vitro comparison with the hippocampus and implications for Vascular Parkinsonism”. Supervised by Professor Janusz Lipski. 
  •  Sheryl Tan ''Toward understanding the structure and plasticity of the human olfactory bulb in the normal and Parkinson’s disease brain''   Supervised by Associate Professor Maurice Curtis (Primary), Professor Mike Dragunow (co-supervisor), and Dr Hector Monzo (co-supervisor).

To support PhD students who submit their thesis within 4 years the School has allocated funds from its PBRF allocation, in the form of Writing Bursaries valued at $5000, to enable them write up papers from their PhD projects while they await their PhD oral examination. The following twelve students have been provisionally awarded (subject to submitting within 4 years) SMS PBRF Bursary Scholarships in 2015.


First round awardees

Stacey D'Mello

Morag Hunter

Taryn Saggese

Gary D'Souza

Kevin Lee

Petr Tomek

Swapna Gannabathula

Nasim Mehrabi

Catherine Tsai

Lucy Goodman

Rosica Petrova

Andrew Yee


Second round awardees

Susann Beier

Alec Lin Hou

Alexander Trevarton

Kathleen Gilbert

Yufeng Hou

Dasun Wagachchi

Soo Hee Jeong

Junru Song

Guido Wassink

Administration matters

Vicky Tsang
Vicky Tsang


FMHS is the largest and most complex containment facility at the University with significant existing chemical stocks as well. HazTRAC will ensure we achieve and maintain our obligations to MPI, emergency services and other regulatory organisations.

This increased compliance burden on researchers has been alleviated somewhat by the excellent work of Vicky Tsang to document GMO stocks in our research laboratories to ensure they are up to MPI standards. More recently Vicky has been appointed to a new role to help guide the final design and implementation of the HazTRAC project in FMHS.

The HazTRAC project implements cradle to grave purchasing and tracking of chemical and biological items and will significantly change the way we order and maintain these and other scientific materials.

Vicky will be working closely with the Project team including current project members, Subject Matter Experts and Reference Group members Mary Spellman and Ray Gilbert. Higher level input to the project for FMHS is provided at steering committee by Richard Swain, Paul Donaldson and Ray Gilbert.