Fellowships & Doctoral Scholarships Awarded 


Trophoblast stem cells and fetal growth restriction ($128,000 – 3 years) 1219006

Cherry Sun

Dept. of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, The University of Auckland

The placenta mediates nutrient exchange between mum and baby, and its ability to do this depends on specialised placental cells called trophoblasts. Aberrant placentation and trophoblast differentiation/function are major contributors to diseases of pregnancy such as fetal growth restriction (FGR). FGR remains an important problem it has no effective treatment, in part because we do not understand why it occurs. The James lab has developed a new method to isolate trophoblast stem cells (TSC, from which all mature trophoblasts arise) directly from the placenta without culture, and this has allowed the isolation of TSCs from term placentae for the first time. This is critical to understand how TSCs contribute to pregnancy pathologies, which can only be detected clinically in late pregnancy. Isolating TSCs from normal and FGR placentae has revealed that this population are significantly (10-fold) depleted in FGR placentae, and gene expression studies suggest this is a result of reduced cell proliferation and increased cell death. This project aims to understand how functional differences in the proliferation, death, and differentiation of TSCs may contribute to the pathophysiology of FGR. This will allow us to identify potential therapeutic targets to improve the function of FGR placentae in the future.

RURAL: Regional vs Urban Risk of Appendicitis CompLications ($18,000 – 1 year) 1218003

Dr Brodie Elliot

Dept. of Surgery, The University of Auckland & Northland District Health Board

Appendicitis is the most common and costly emergency general surgical disease that affects children. International studies have shown that rural patients are more likely to have poorer outcomes of appendicitis. This results in distress and harm for children and their families in the form of pain, increased stay in hospital, and need for repeat invasive procedures. Despite a quarter of New Zealanders living in a rural or small center, no study has investigated whether this problem exists here. We will first interview the families of children who have undergone an emergency appendicectomy and study any common themes that prevent rural families from accessing surgical care. Using this information we will then investigate the presentation and outcomes of all children who undergo surgery for appendicitis, nationally. This research will be used to identify any common barriers faced by rural families in accessing acute paediatric surgical care and whether surgical outcomes of appendicitis are worse for children of rural families on a national scale. This will act as a platform to guide public health improvement efforts, improve rural access to healthcare and reduce the impact of this common disease on the New Zealand’s children.

Platelet-derived growth factor signalling in patient-derived brain cells ($128,000 – 3 years) 1219004

Susan Li

Dept. of Pharmacology & Clinical Pharmacology, The University of Auckland

Platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) is a potent mitogen involved in the proliferation, migration and survival of cells, with its effect mediated via the activation of its receptors, PDGFRα and PDGFRβ, and subsequent signalling pathway. Studies have revealed evidence of its involvement in the maintenance of blood-brain barrier integrity by promoting proliferation and survival of pericytes, a mural cell type critical to vascular function. The PDGF receptors are also found in glioma cells, playing a role in tumour development and progression, especially in Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the most common and malignant primary brain tumour. Preliminary data from our lab show that both pericytes and glioma cells abundantly express the PDGF receptors and have distinct signalling properties. This project aims to thoroughly characterise the PDGF signalling pathway, with emphasis on brain pericytes and GBM glioma cells. Funded by: The Edith Rose Isaacs Estate


Probing the biochemistry of skin with lasers, light scattering and molecular ionisation ($200,306 – 2 years) 1319001

Dr Hannah Holtkamp

School of Chemical Sciences, The University of Auckland

Diagnosing different skin diseases is dependent on an instrument’s ability to identify the unique signals of each disease. Unstudied skin diseases have ill-defined biochemistry and require analytical techniques that can provide a broad biomolecular survey. Two techniques are capable of this, and they generate two different spectral fingerprints. Raman spectroscopy is non-invasive (making it ideal for diagnostics) and provides a precise ratio of biomolecular components present in tissue (e.g. lipids, proteins, etc). Mass spectrometry (MS) is invasive but identifies all individual biomolecules present by their mass-to-charge (m/z) ratio. By developing computational algorithms, the precise molecular information from mass spectrometry can be incorporated into Raman measurements with which the unique aspects of any skin disease can be more precisely identified. Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is a case study for these techniques due to its distinctiveness compared to other types of lupus. Unless one is an expert dermatologist, its classification and diagnosis are challenging. This project will contribute to a fundamental understanding of how DLE differs from other skin diseases. Furthermore, the computational methods that provide enhanced dermatological diagnostic resolution will be incorporated into the development of a Raman spectroscopy-based portable device (currently under development). Funded by: Edith C Coan Trust