By John Pickering 09/02/2016


Q. What has Mars, Epidemics, Heart Disease, Infection, and Pacifika got in common?

A. They are all central to research project at the University of Otago Christchurch (UOC).

Here are some excerpts for the UOC summer newsletter (Written by UOC communications manager, Kim Thomas).

Christchurch in NASA Mars project role

University of Otago, Christchurch, researchers are playing a crucial role in research that will assist in NASA’s mission to Mars.

Thee Christchurch researchers are scanning the brains of explorers who have wintered in Antarctica as part of a NASA /German Aerospace Center project to understand what impact living in extreme environments has on the human brain. The research will be relevant for NASA’s plans to send humans to Mars. The shortest possible return trip to the red planet would take two years.

The international research team is led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Associate Professor Mathias Basner. His team will be scanning the brains of astronauts, while the Canterbury team focuses on those who have wintered in Antarctic’s extreme and isolated environment.

Dr Tracy Melzer is the MRI research manager for the Christchurch campus’ New Zealand Brain Research Institute. He says the research aims to understand whether prolonged periods in these extreme, isolated and hostile environments change brain structure and function.

His international collaborators have already found the hippocampus region of the brain, which is important for memory formation and visual/spatial orientation, actually shrinks during the Antarctica winter.

Dr Melzer and his colleagues will scan the brains of up to 28 international explorers over two years. They are tested before leaving for Antarctica, immediately on their return, then six months afterwards. The Christchurch scans are important because they capture explorers immediately as they return from the ice.

Preparing for future disease epidemics

Christchurch microbiologist Professor David Murdoch has taken part in an invitation-only global think tank aimed at better anticipating future infectious disease epidemics.

The head of the University of Otago, Christchurch’s Pathology Department was one of two Australasians invited to the World Health Organization-led event late last year.

Professor Murdoch says he was privileged to be among about 130 international experts invited to attend, including human and animal health experts, and members of aid agencies and the insurance and travel industries.

“ The big idea was how to better prepare for future epidemics, knowing there definitely will be ones. It also recognized reviews of the Ebola response and a desire to improve on that.”

Acknowledging the importance of collaboration, one key outcome of the event was getting people from diverse areas of expertise together, Professor Murdoch says.

The event consisted of six sessions, including ‘Back to the future: learning from the past’, and ‘Preventing the spread of infectious disease in a global village’. Each session consisted of short talks by five experts, then robust discussion.

Professor Murdoch spoke at the event about the relatively new area of microbiomes (the communities of microorganisms that inhabit parts of the human body) and how understanding it could help with preparing for and controlling future respiratory disease epidemics.

Some of the ideas that emerged from the event were that global and public health were getting more political attention than ever, and that health threats increasingly reflected nature, including the animal world, and so acknowledging and understanding its interplay with human health was important.

Contact between children monitored in world first infection study

Christchurch primary school pupils are wearing sensors tracking contact with each other in a world-leading study to better understand a common but serious disease.

The staphylococcus bacterium is a major cause of serious infections such as septicaemia, but also often presents as sores on the skin. Most commonly, though, it is carried harmlessly on skin or in noses, from where it can be passed on to others who might become ill. Very little is known about who passes it to whom in the community.

University of Otago, Christchurch researcher Dr Pippa Scott is testing levels of the bacteria in Linwood Avenue School pupils and, in a world first, monitoring contact between them using ‘proximity sensors’ to better understand how staphylococcus is passed from person to person.

Dr Scott says school-aged children o en spread u and other diseases so could be important to the spread of staphylococcus in the community.

“We asked a lot of schools if they would take part in the study and Linwood Avenue School principal Gerard Direen came back to us quickly and said the school would be really keen to help.’’

Dr Scott says 70 children aged between 8 and 11 were given the proximity sensors to wear clipped to their shirts for around 2 weeks. e sensors are not GPS devices and cannot pinpoint a child’s whereabouts but rather record when children come in contact with each other. They have never before been successfully used in a study linking infectious disease spread to contact in the same individuals.

The study is ongoing but early analysis found almost every child was carrying the bacterium at some stage during the seven times they were tested. More than half the children carried the bacteria at any one test session. Almost all strains the children had were susceptible to commonly prescribed drugs for the condition.

First study of South Island Pasifika heart health

“She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate our cells produce free radicals as part of their normal function.”

It’s well known that New Zealand’s Pacific population suffers higher rates of heart disease than the general population. But until now, evidence has been based on data gathered
in Auckland. University of Otago, Christchurch researcher Dr Allamanda Faatoese is changing that with the launch of the Pasifika Heart study of Christchurch Pacific people.

“Pacific communities living in Auckland have vastly different environments than those in Christchurch. We know little about the heart health profile of Pasifika people in Christchurch,’’ she says.

The Heart Foundation-funded Pasifika Heart study will for the first time measure heart disease risk factors in 200 Pacific Island participants, both healthy people and those suffering from illness. Dr Faatoese is based at the University’s Christchurch Heart Institute but will study participants from across the South Island.

Each participant’s personal and family medical history, blood pressure and body composition will be recorded along with their cholesterol levels, blood sugars and markers linked with kidney function, gout and heart failure.