Jessie Jacobsen: Scientific achiever

By Catherine Masters

Jessie Jacobsen bursts into delighted laughter and says: "Thank you. Oh wow."

"I feel slightly under-qualified," she adds after hearing she has been nominated for New Zealander of the Year.

Jacobsen's an energetic but modest 26-year-old PhD student with a ready smile and a big brain.

She has put her intellect to good use - researching the mysterious workings of the brain - and this year was the MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year.

Jacobsen has spent 3 1/2 years researching the fatal brain disorder Huntingdon's Disease and made a breakthrough involving human DNA and sheep. It is hoped this in turn will lead to a breakthrough in treatment.

The disease is an awful one, she says. People with Huntingdon's Disease can develop marked behavioural changes and eventually lose their ability to walk, talk, think and swallow. But there are no effective drug treatments to slow the disease, let alone arrest it.

What the Auckland University Medical School thought was needed was a large transgenic animal which could be used to study the onset of Huntingdon's Disease in a way impossible with living human beings.

What Jacobsen figured out was how to inject DNA with the Huntingdon's gene into sheep.

The sheep is a great model because its brain is remarkably similar to the human brain, she says.

"The parts that are affected in Huntingdon's Disease - particularly the basal ganglia - are quite comparable in sheep and humans. So obviously there's a lot more going on in their brains than we think."

The other advantages of sheep are that they are easily accessible, easy to look after and, crucially, live a lot longer than lab rats and mice.

With people, researchers see the brain only at the end stage of the disease but with sheep they can try to establish what is going on before symptoms appear.

Jacobsen says winning the science award has been incredible. As part of the prize she visited colleagues at Cambridge University in Britain who are involved in the project.

She also hopes to travel to Harvard University in Boston at the end of next year to continue her research there.

The most rewarding part of winning, though, has been the response from people with Huntingdon's Disease and their families.

"Hearing people say 'thank you, we didn't know research was being done on it'. They're just really pleased."

Jacobsen is part of a team led by Professor Richard Faull, another Herald nomination for New Zealander of the year.

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