The Government is pouring $139 million into 48 of New Zealand's most promising research programmes. From developing healing-enhanced wound dressings to perfecting super-strength baby formula, the projects — if successful — will benefit a range of NZ businesses. Teuila Fuatai looks at four projects approved in the 2014 Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment contestable science investment round

1. Keratin-based wound dressings. AgResearch.

Derived from sheep wool, keratin-based dressings are a gift to chronic wound sufferers around the world, with scientific research showing they are effective in healing seven out of 10 cases.

AgResearch scientists Dr Stefan Clerens and Dr Sonya Scott have been approved $1.6 million over a four-year period for a project investigating what makes the bandages so effective.

"Sheep wool is composed of keratin proteins and it's a really complex mixture," Dr Clerens said. "We have a big mixture at the moment, thousands of them. We are looking to identify one, probably several, that are particularly good.

"We're going to separate them out to little bits and look to see which ones work ... and how we can get more of them to get improved healing," Dr Scott said.

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Throughout the research, several techniques would be used to identify which proteins and peptides encouraged cell growth or cell migration - both of which improved healing.

"From there, once we work out what it is that is doing it, we can look at how can we get more of this, and how can we deliver it in a way to maximise healing properties," Dr Scott said.

When the new and improved dressings were ready for testing, researchers from the University of Miami School of Medicine - who were working on the project with Dr Clerens and Dr Scott's team - would see how they worked on selected patients.

A similar trial could eventually be carried out in New Zealand, but this would be after the current four-year project, Dr Scott said.

2. Food safe: real time bacterial count. University of Auckland

Research Series: Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck Senior Lecturer of Physics, pictured in the Auckland University Physic's lab. 2nd October 2014. New Zealand Herald Photograph By Chris Gorman
Research Series: Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck Senior Lecturer of Physics, pictured in the Auckland University Physic's lab. 2nd October 2014. New Zealand Herald Photograph By Chris Gorman

Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck is developing quicker way of testing bacterial levels in meat. Photo / Chris Gorman

Meat is New Zealand's second most lucrative overseas market, with red meat exports alone worth $2.76 billion in the six months to March 31.

Food safety is crucial to this multi-billion dollar industry, and University of Auckland physicist Dr Frederique Vanholsbeeck is in the process of developing a special device which eliminates the three-day wait for bacterial level results in a meat sample.

At the moment, a standard plate count is used to measure bacterial levels. While it costs less than $20 to do, it takes up to three days to get a result, Dr Vanholsbeeck said.

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"If you start processing the food and ... it comes back three days later saying that something is positive, first of all you have to remove everything that is positive, but also [there is the risk that it may have] contaminated the processing plant."

Dr Vanholsbeeck and her team are working on an alternative bacterial testing method using light fluorescence.

"We use a [fluorescent] dye that attaches to bacteria and then we measure the intensity very accurately. [From it] we can tell how much bacteria you have in your sample."

Currently, the device the team was working with was "quite big, like one of those electronic boxes", Dr Vanholsbeeck said.

"We don't exactly know what the final shape will be but it will be something ... small enough to carry in your pocket."

The aim was to have it return a bacterial level result for a sample in five minutes, she said. It also needed to be available at a cost similar to that of the plate count.

The project has received $2.71 million in funding for four years.

3. Functional Formula. University of Otago.

Baby girl doing tummy time
Baby girl doing tummy time

The Functional Formula project aims to create an advanced baby formula to encourage the growth of bifidobacteria. Photo / Thinkstock

Professor Gerald Tannock's "Functional Formula" project is now in its second phase of research.

The University of Otago microbiologist launched into the project, which looks at a particular type of bacteria living in the gut of babies, with Victoria University Ferrier Research Institute scientist Dr Ian Sims two years ago.

"In the gut of babies - whether they're breast milk-fed or cows' milk-fed - the kind of bacteria with the greatest abundance are called bifidobacterium," Professor Tannock said.

They are useful because they keep disease-causing bacteria out of the gut. However, in formula-fed babies, their abundance is about 20 per cent less than in breast-fed babies.

This difference was due to a special carbohydrate contained in breast milk, known as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).

HMOs encouraged the growth of bifidobacteria, and in the initial two- year phase of Functional Formula - which received $789,900 of funding from the MBIE - Professor Tannock and Dr Sims identified a carbohydrate not from human milk which did the same job.

Now the pair were in their second research phase, which received $1 million in funding over two years, it was all about scaling up production of this "candidate carbohydrate".

"We'll be doing some more laboratory and other experiments here at Otago to validate the results of what we did in phase one.

"The end aim is to have the production technology worked out, the laboratory experiment validated so we can parcel this information on to interested companies in New Zealand," he said. "We're not trying to supplant breast feeding ... because that is the best way to go. Our way of looking at it is, why shouldn't every child get some kind of formula that mimics this bifidobacterial effect in the gut?"

Professor Tannock is based at the University of Otago's Microbiology and Immunology department. Dr Sims specialises in analysing complex carbohydrate structures.

4. Bioactive gels for skeletal repair. University of Auckland.

Dr David Musson (left) and Professor Jill Cornish at the University of Auckland Department of Medicine research labs. 3 October 2014 New Zealand Herald photograph by Jason Oxenham.
Dr David Musson (left) and Professor Jill Cornish at the University of Auckland Department of Medicine research labs. 3 October 2014 New Zealand Herald photograph by Jason Oxenham.

Dr David Musson and Professor Jill Cornish are developing a gel to aid bone healing. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Recovering from a bone fracture can be a painful process.

Each year, about 86,000 New Zealanders suffer from one. Of these, between 8 and 20 per cent fail to heal properly.

The Auckland University Bone and Joint Research group, headed by Dr David Musson and Dr Jill Cornish from the university's school of medicine, are developing a special gel aimed at aiding these cases.

"In situations where the bone fails to heal ... they'll put in some graft material to help bridge the gap between the fractures and act as a structure around which the new bone can form," Dr Musson said.

Using graft material, which is either taken from the patient themselves in a painful procedure or from cadaver samples, has a high complication rate. It is also expensive, he said.

The gel being developed by Dr Musson's team contains lactoferrin - a protein which aids in bone healing - and would be used instead of bone grafts.

"As well as providing the structural support in the form of a gel, the lactoferrin ... would increase the bone formation, so increase bone healing. It's also been shown that lactoferrin is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory, so that should help reduce the instance of infections."

The project has received $617,988 over two years. Once the gel had passed tests in the lab, it would need to be go through clinical trials, Dr Musson said.