Kōrero: Medical research

Whārangi 3. Independent research bodies, 1920s to 2010s

Ngā whakaahua

A number of independent research bodies were established in the 1920s and 1930s. These included:

  • the New Zealand Obstetrical Society, founded in 1927
  • the Otago Medical School Research Society, set up in 1928
  • the New Zealand branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign, founded in 1929 (and which established a cancer research laboratory at Otago the following year, directed by pathologist Andrew Begg).

Researchers also sometimes received funding from overseas, such as that awarded to Harold Turbott by the British Medical Research Council in 1934, for a study of Māori tuberculosis. The New Zealand Health Department hoped this might be the forerunner of more co-operation with British researchers.

The Life Insurance Medical Research Fund of Australia and New Zealand was set up in 1951 in the belief that there was a critical lack of original research in the two countries. One of its earliest grants was to Horace Smirk for his work on the physiology of hypertension (high blood pressure). Smirk, who arrived in Dunedin in 1942, played a leading role in developing drug treatment of hypertension. From the early 1960s his research was jointly funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wellcome Trust, which paid for Dunedin’s Wellcome Medical Research Institute.

Medical Research Foundations

In 1955 a group of Auckland doctors and businessmen, guided by Douglas Robb, decided to wrest some research funding away from Dunedin to Auckland. They founded the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (MRF). Wellington and Palmerston North MRFs were founded in 1960. Similar organisations were established in Hawke’s Bay (1961), Taranaki (1965), Southland (1967), Otago (1968) and Waikato (1986).

A one-day conference organised by the MRC in 1972 was attended by representatives of no fewer than 39 funding organisations. By this stage the provincial MRFs dispensed around $80,000 annually, with Golden Kiwi, the Cancer Society and the National Heart Foundation each donating larger sums than this.

Other foundations

From the 1960s further research foundations were formed, including:

  • the National Diabetes Association in 1962 (to carry out research fundraising), which later became Diabetes New Zealand
  • the New Zealand Dental Research Foundation in 1964
  • the National Heart Foundation of New Zealand in 1968
  • the Child Health Research Foundation in 1971
  • the Diabetes Foundation in 1980 (to coordinate diabetes education and research spending).

Cellular ‘cannibalism’ for gout?

Malaghan Institute researchers Jacquie Harper and Stefanie Steiger found that cellular ‘cannibalism’ might help treat gout. Neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, respond to gout crystals by releasing substances that cause pain and inflammation. Harper and Steiger found that neutrophils would also ‘eat’ other neutrophils that had died after contact with gout crystals. The ‘cannibal’ neutrophils then released a chemical that reduced gout-associated pain and tissue damage. This research, carried out in the early 2010s, was partly funded by the Wellington Medical Research Foundation.

Malaghan Institute and Liggins Institute

The Wellington Cancer and Medical Research Institute was opened in 1979. Later renamed the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, it became part of Victoria University of Wellington. The Malaghan Institute focused on finding cures for cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, infectious diseases, asthma and allergies. In the 2010s Malaghan researchers Graham Le Gros and Franca Rochese carried out important research into asthma. Their aim was to develop an immunological treatment or a vaccine for asthma.

The Liggins Institute was set up at the University of Auckland in 2001 as a centre for research into developmental biology and human health.

New Zealand Brain Research Institute

The New Zealand Brain Research Institute, which incorporates the Van Der Veer Institute for Parkinson’s and brain research, is based in Christchurch. It funds a wide range of brain research, including the world-recognised work of Maggie-Lee Huckabee. Her research group investigates rehabilitative techniques for people suffering from dysphagia – problems with swallowing after strokes.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Derek Dow, 'Medical research - Independent research bodies, 1920s to 2010s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/medical-research/page-3 (accessed 17 September 2019)

Story by Derek Dow, published 22 Oct 2014