A research team that is growing new human brain cells will benefit from the last and biggest donation in an extraordinary $380 million fundraising drive by the University of Auckland.

The university's Centre for Brain Research, which has built up a world-leading "bank" of more than 1000 brains and links with all the families that have donated brain tissue, has been given $16.5 million from the Hugh Green Foundation.

The endowment - the biggest single donation in the university's history - ends a three-year fundraising campaign that has raised $380.3m for a range of university projects.

Philanthropy NZ chief executive Sue McCabe said the total was "the largest amount that has been raised in a single campaign in New Zealand's philanthropic history".

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Centre for Brain Research director Sir Richard Faull, who has appeared in television advertisements washing cars to raise money for the Neurological Foundation, said he would never have to wash cars again.

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"Most of the giving has been money to use and develop over the next five years," he said.

"This time they have given us a grant which, when invested in our School of Medicine Foundation, will provide ongoing revenue for this facility to continue. This will provide an endowment which will mean that this research can continue forever."

He said the centre, which he founded 10 years ago, had built up detailed clinical histories of all the people whose brains have been donated - some with brain diseases and some healthy brains from people who have died from other causes.

"The research we are doing here is quite unique in the world. It's something we can do in a small country where we work closely with neurosurgeons and families who donate the brains," he said.

Sir Richard Faull (right), pictured in 2015 with then 96-year-old Jim Warren who kept his brain healthy through music, has worked closely with families of brain donors. Photo / File
Sir Richard Faull (right), pictured in 2015 with then 96-year-old Jim Warren who kept his brain healthy through music, has worked closely with families of brain donors. Photo / File

"We have an encyclopedic knowledge of the brains that we do research on. We share that with the top research groups overseas. The families think it's a wonderful thing that their Mum or Dad's brain is contributing to pushing back the frontiers of brain research across the world."

A research team led by Professor Mike Dragunow is now using the donated brain tissue to grow new brain cells that may eventually allow us to slow down or even cure diseases such as Alzheimer's, epilepsy, Parkinson's, Huntington's, motor neurone disease and brain tumours.

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"We can grow virtually any type of human brain cell," Faull said.

"We are not making a new brain, but we are using human brain cells to develop new treatments.

"Many treatments evolve from using animals. They provide really important information. But many of the treatment designs actually fail because human brains are more complicated.

"We are very well placed to actually develop new types of treatments that are more likely to be of benefit to humans with brain diseases."

He said 70,000 New Zealanders have Alzheimer's and dementia now, and one in three people can expect to suffer from brain disease during their lifetimes.

The research includes a commercial platform, Neurovalida, which tests new drugs for brain treatment.

Hugh Green, pictured (left) with his son John Green in 2011, grew up in poverty in Ireland but built up one of New Zealand's biggest civil construction companies. Photo / File
Hugh Green, pictured (left) with his son John Green in 2011, grew up in poverty in Ireland but built up one of New Zealand's biggest civil construction companies. Photo / File

The Hugh Green Foundation was established in 1998 by the late Hugh Green, who experienced poverty during his childhood in Ireland but ended up owning one of New Zealand's largest civil construction companies.

Other projects being funded by the $380m fundraising include trials for cancer drugs and a space systems programme that is building a satellite to be launched by Rocket Lab next year.

New Zealand's previous biggest fundraising campaign, also by the University of Auckland, raised $202m in 2012.