The Auckland researchers behind a treatment credited with saving thousands of babies with brain injuries worldwide have been hailed with another major award from New Zealand's science community.

Weeks after Professor Alistair Gunn received the Health Research Council's prestigious Beaven Medal, the University of Auckland clinical scientist and his colleagues were this evening awarded the NZ Association of Scientists' Shorland Medal.

Gunn's fellow recipients in the Fetal Physiology and Neuroscience Team were Professor Laura Bennett, Dr Joanne Davidson, Dr Justin Dean and Professor Colin Green.

The association found the team had made an "outstanding contribution" researching the major causes of death and disability in early childhood.


That included identifying compromised fetuses in labour, making discoveries around perinatal brain injury and finding new ways to treat asphyxial brain injury before and after birth.

Their most influential work was a series of experimental studies that provided the foundation for understanding how, when and in whom cooling could be successfully used to reduce brain damage in babies.

Cooling works by suppressing cell death pathways activated by injury.

The earlier the cooling treatment is applied, the better - ideally, within six hours of the brain injury.

Gunn's world-first study and subsequent clinical trials meant that in NZ and around the world mild cooling was now the standard of care for treating babies with brain injury due to low oxygen levels.

At least one million babies worldwide die or survive with disability from lack of oxygen to the brain at birth, a condition known as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy.

In New Zealand, it was estimated that between 50 and 70 babies had moderate to severe brain injury at birth because of this.

The simple, practical and safe cooling treatment Gunn and his team developed and modified had reduced the number of children with cerebral palsy due to birth complications in New Zealand by six to eight per year, saving an estimated $230 million to $385m in lifetime costs each year.


"This is very New Zealand science - the first ever randomised control was led by New Zealand, and the first cooling machine was developed by us," Gunn said.

It had been heartening to see the approach widely used elsewhere in the world.

"It's an award to the whole team, and I'm humbled to represent them."

Other scientists honoured included Professor Christian Hartinger - a leading scientist at the University of Auckland's School of Chemical Sciences particularly known for his work on the development of metal-based anticancer drugs - who was presented the Hill Tinsley Medal.

Dr Ocean Mercier, of Victoria University, received the Cranwell Medal for her science communication efforts.

Mercier was best known for her role as the presenter of TV science programme Project Matauranga, which investigated how Maori people, knowledge and methods worked with the scientific community to solve a range of problems.

The Cranwell Medal was recently renamed to honour Dr Lucy Cranwell, a botanist who made ground-breaking discoveries in palynology and became curator of botany at Auckland Museum in 1929, aged 21.

The Marsden Medal was presented to Otago University's Professor Carolyn Burns, internationally renowned for her research into freshwater ecology, especially that of the large lakes of the South Island.