Well-known GP Dr Lance O'Sullivan has teamed up with leading researchers in a new effort targeting some of the biggest health issues facing Maori and Pacific people.

Based in O'Sullivan's home town of Kaitaia, and dubbed Waharoa ki te Toi, or The Gateway, the new research unit will see the GP's Moko Foundation working alongside scientists from the Auckland University-based Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery.

Using cutting-edge science, including new genetics techniques, the researchers will work with the Far North community to explore better ways to tackle such conditions as obesity, type-2 diabetes and rheumatic fever.

O'Sullivan, who saw these diseases among many of his patients, said the potential to improve peoples' lives and gain valuable new insights was "huge".


"It's going to be incredible."

Maurice Wilkins Centre deputy director Professor Peter Shepherd said the partnership would allow his colleagues to focus their work on an area where "some of the greatest health issues lie".

"Usually, researchers might go to rural areas to get samples from patients and return to the city to analyse the information," said Shepherd, who will co-direct the unit with O'Sullivan, and was also raised in Kaitaia.

"However, Waharoa ki te Toi aims to deliver a permanent research presence in Kaitaia that will develop research questions relevant to the needs of those in the local community."

Shepherd said that, in rural areas like Kaitaia, such diseases were typically managed by GPs, rather than by specialists in big city hospitals.

"So we can access patients and do research with them in a different type of way than we do in our current university setting.

"And by working within the community, we feel we will get more buy-in to the research, and we'll be able to disseminate the results of the research much more widely."

One of the projects would investigate why diabetes drugs work differently among individuals.

"We don't know why but we suspect that could be related to genetics," Shepherd said.

"And some of the more recent genetics findings in New Zealand means that it's really important that we understand what's going on."

Shepherd has already been leading a trial that involves breath-testing thousands of schoolchildren to reveal a little-understood aspect of sugar's role in New Zealand's childhood obesity epidemic.

That study looks at how well Kiwi kids absorb fructose, which is likely a major contributor to metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.