$8m target to devlop brain research strategy

By Martin Johnston

The tissue sent to the university is considered vital for producing new insights into epilepsy. Photo / Thinkstock
The tissue sent to the university is considered vital for producing new insights into epilepsy. Photo / Thinkstock

When patients have a certain kind of brain surgery to treat epilepsy at Auckland City Hospital, some of the tissue, with their consent, is sent over the road to the Auckland University for research.

The operation removes part of the temporal lobe. It is the most common operation to treat epilepsy and has a reasonably good cure rate: up to 70 per cent of patients are left free of seizures that impair consciousness or cause abnormal movements.

The tissue sent to the university is considered vital for producing new insights into epilepsy.

"We are able to keep these cells alive - straight off the operating table - in our bio-bank and study their characteristics and do detailed studies on human brain cells. That is ground-breaking," said Professor Richard Faull, director of the university's Brain Research Centre.

"We can compare those cells with other cells from brains that have been bequeathed to us from people who have died of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's disease or motor neurone disease and say what is the difference between these cells which result in different types of diseases.

"The neurosurgeons do 1500 life-saving operations a year on the brain and on the spinal cord. If we could assist in studying these patients during the course of the disease and also see in what ways we could help them develop neurosurgery, that would be fantastic. We could do some powerful things together. That would require a top-class neurosurgeon who would join their team who would also have a research focus appointed half-time with the university."

This is a scheme for which Professor Faull's brain centre will tonight start a public fundraising campaign: a professor of neurosurgery who will work half time at the university in research, a senior research fellow and administrative support.

The project has already attracted three major donors who have contributed towards the target of raising $8 million. This will be invested and the earnings used to finance the new research team.

The Auckland District Health Board has agreed to employ the professor for the other half of his or her working week to do neurosurgery.

Professor Faull said the cell lines from the bio-bank could be exposed to different types of chemicals.

"That research is developing, but the potential is enormous. We haven't developed a new drug yet, but from this we can develop a drug discovery platform in our bio-bank."

The health board's clinical director of neurosurgery, Edward Mee, said new epilepsy medicines were needed: drugs that could prevent seizures but without the considerable side-effects experienced by most patients on current medicines.

Professor Faull said the joint approach with the DHB had already worked well in the non-surgical field of neurology, with the appointment in 2008 of Professor Alan Barber, a practising neurologist at Auckland Hospital, as a clinical research leader and deputy director at the university brain centre.

"He is a world expert on strokes. He has enhanced the quality of the research and the clinical care with his research team, to levels that were not there previously. We are following a tried and true example of success."

Otago University and Dunedin Hospital created New Zealand's first academic neurosurgical unit, with the appointment of Professor Dirk De Ridder in February.

Mr Mee said he would be keen to see collaboration with Otago.

- NZ Herald

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