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Trial into brain-based solution for chronic pain wins funding as part of $15M awarded to NZ researchers

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Dr Divya Adhia, Research Fellow, University of Otago

With a fellowship of nearly $600,000 from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC), a University of Otago researcher will trial a novel brain stimulation technique for treating chronic low back pain – a leading cause of disability worldwide.

The trial by Dr Divya Adhia (pictured) builds on her team’s previous research, showing that abnormal activity between three cardinal networks of the brain is associated with worse pain, poor function, and quality of life and wellbeing in people with chronic low back pain. Expanding on this, she has developed a technique using transcranial electrical stimulation to normalise the abnormal electrical connectivity between these brain networks.

“Chronic pain goes beyond the structural level – it is an experience influenced by biological, psychological, social and lifestyle factors. It is really complex and largely moderated by the brain,” says Dr Adhia. Her proposed research will test if a brain-based therapy could be a way to enhance pain modulation and produce meaningful clinical benefits.

“Current treatments include pharmacological options that have had small effects on chronic pain, and they may come with side-effects in the long run. A new, non-invasive, safer therapy is warranted,” she says.

While similar brain interventions have been explored, they have focused on stimulating singular brain regions and have been limited by technology. Dr Adhia’s research is different, not only because it targets multiple regions of the brain, but utilises advanced technology and a uniquely designed waveform. She says that targeting ‘triple brain network activity’ and exploring its effect on pain will create new knowledge and lead to potentially new solutions for people with chronic pain.

The trial will include piloting a home-based treatment option, which could create greater acceptance for the intervention by individuals and their whānau, as well as reduce healthcare access-related barriers and service-delivery costs. “We believe training and empowering people to administer the intervention by themselves at home will help maximise the reach of the treatment,” she says.

Dr Adhia is one of 76 recipients of the HRC’s Career Development Awards announced today. This includes 35 recipients in the Māori health research category, 17 in the Pacific health research category, and 24 in the general category, awarded a combined total of more than $15M.

These awards help launch research careers, with funding for summer studentships and development grants as well as Masters and PhD scholarships. They also support and develop research leaders through advanced postdoctoral fellowships, including clinical research training fellowships, as well as research fellowships for frontline clinicians.

Mrs Renata Watene from the University of Auckland was awarded a $265,000 Māori Health Clinical Research Training Fellowship for a project to improve Māori eye health in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Mrs Watene has worked in Optics for 23 years and will draw on her 15 years' of Clinical Optometry experience to analyse existing eye health services and explore existing indigenous models of healthcare locally and globally. This research seeks to address significant gaps in service provision, disease detection, treatment, and vision impairment experienced by Māori, as well as inform the development of culturally responsive tools to improve Māori eye health services.

Also from the University of Auckland, Research Fellow Dr Siobhan Tu’akoi was awarded a $487,000 Pacific health postdoctoral fellowship to address rheumatic fever inequities with a series of innovative community co-design interventions.

Despite reductions across most high-income countries, rheumatic fever remains a significant issue in Aotearoa New Zealand, largely affecting Pasifika and Māori. Although a range of interventions and initiatives have been implemented over time, rates have not shown any consistent, long-term reduction. Dr Tu’akoi says innovative models of care, designed and led by Pacific communities, are needed to address the significant health inequities faced by Pacific peoples. Her research will focus on a co-designed social-media based intervention, aimed at improving health literacy and awareness for Pasifika in Auckland.

Chief executive of the Health Research Council, Professor Sunny Collings, says the research enabled by this latest funding round will have an impact on health and reducing inequities, while building the research workforce that can address Aotearoa New Zealand’s health needs.

“Our career development awards are essential to building health research capability in New Zealand and sustaining research careers. The $15 million awarded in this round is a critical investment in skills, knowledge and evidence that will improve health for New Zealanders.”

See below for the full list of recipients, divided into three categories: Māori health research, Pacific health research, and a general category focused on clinical and postdoctoral career development. For lay summaries of research proposals, visit our Research Repository:

Recipients of the 2024 Career Development Awards

2024 Māori Health Research Career Development Awards

Erihapeti Rehu-Murchie Postdoctoral Fellowship

Dr Nikki Barrett, University of Waikato
Tino rangatiratanga through Kaupapa Māori pregnancy and parenting solutions

36 months, $391,877

Hohua Tutengaehe Postdoctoral Fellowship

Ms Erana Hond-Flavell, Te Pou Tiringa Incorporated
Hākoakoa: Enhancing the health and wellbeing outcomes of tamariki and whānau
48 months, $530,354

Māori Health Clinical Research Training Fellowship

Mr Meihana Douglas, Auckland University of Technology

Adaptation of Dialectic behaviour therapy (DBT) for Māori
36 months, $265,000

Dr Tiwini Hemi, The University of Auckland
Transforming crosslinking services to support Māori health equity in keratoconus
12 months, $100,000

Dr Samantha Jackson, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Taimaha rukiruki: A kaupapa Māori approach to pēpi loss

36 months, $259,984

Miss Carly Pohatu, The University of Auckland
Improving outcomes for Māori accessing in-patient mental health services
36 months, $265,000

Dr Hana Royal, University of Otago

Nitrate in drinking water and congenital anomalies: a retrospective cohort study
48 months, $265,000

Mrs Renata Watene, The University of Auckland
Karu Ora - An Indigenous approach to eye health to achieve equitable outcomes
36 months, $265,000

Māori Rangahau Hauora Training Grant

Miss Tuakana August, The University of Auckland
Aging and care for kaumātua in Kahungunu
6 months, $12,000

Miss Marie-Claire Bidois-Putt, Auckland University of Technology
Qualitative research training support
6 months, $7,135

Māori Health Research PhD Scholarship

Ms Kay Berryman, University of Waikato
Mana wāhine perspectives for waka ama and hauora
36 months, $123,600

Miss Tori Diamond, The University of Auckland
Novel methods for making Māori health data relevant to local decision-making
36 months, $129,259

Miss Laura Gemmell, University of Otago
Te toi o te aitanga
36 months, $ 141,000

Mr Tom Johnson, Whakauae Research Services
Tāne Māori and Te Awa Tupua
18 months, $72,019

Mrs Arianna Nisa-Waller, University of Otago
Pīkau i te Anamata: Re-imagining postpartum care in Aotearoa
36 months, $135,550

Ms Cynthia Otene, Auckland University of Technology
Experiences of Māori with podiatry foot screening prior to diabetic amputations
24 months, $91,175

Māori Health Research Master’s Scholarship

Ms Sheree Tikao-Harkess, University of Otago
Envisioning a Kaupapa Māori approach to post-injury health service delivery
12 months, $32,323

Māori Health Research Summer Studentship

Miss Kaiah Bloor, University of Otago
Chemical synthesis of novel antimicrobial compounds
4 months, $7,500

Miss Tori-Lee Brown, University of Otago
Māori experiences and perceptions of self-regulatory treatments for chronic pain
4 months, $7,500

Miss Eilish Dalley, University of Otago
Systemic Bias – Eating Disorder Awareness in Indigenous Communities
3 months, $7,500

Mr Tira McLachlan, University of Otago
Investigating a novel gene causing Meier-Gorlin syndrome
3 months, $7,500

Mrs Nasya Thompson, University of Otago
An exploration of knowledge exchange between Rongoā and medical practitioners
3 months, $7,500

Miss Jessica Watson, University of Otago
Cardiac rehabilitation delivery for Māori and other indigenous populations
3 months, $7,500

Mr James Wilson, University of Otago
Kaupapa Māori research approach to assessing biomechanics of Mau Rākau
3 months, $7,500

Māori Health Research Development Grant

Ms Waitiahoaho Emery, Independent Researcher
Te Pae o Kahukura: Kahukura Rising
9 months, $10,000

Mx Te-Rina King-Hudson, University of Otago
Co-design of a kaupapa Māori research project on ageing biomarkers
9 months, $10,000

Ms Georgia McLellan, Massey University
Exploring Takatāpui Social Capital
4 months, $10,000

Professor Dr David Tipene-Leach, Te Pūkenga - Eastern Institute of Technology
Nourishing Hawke’s Bay: Pātaka Kai
10 months, $9,868

Māori Health Research Knowledge Translation Grant

Dr Gloria Clarke, University of Waikato
Knowledge translation: From thesis to community
9 months, $4,269

Mrs Sharron Fabish, The University of Auckland
Hauora: a Ngāti Kahungunu perspective
6 months, $4,500

Ms Kirsty Maxwell-Crawford, Poutiri Trust
Demystifying injury prevention and care: Whakamā to Whakamana
3 months, $5,000

Dr Tess Moeke-Maxwell, The University of Auckland
Rapua te Mārama
8 months, $5,000

Dr Anna Rolleston, The Centre for Health
Supporting whānau flourishing with a cohesive evidence base
6 months, $5,000

Professor Dr David Tipene-Leach, Te Pūkenga – Eastern Institute of Technology
Rangatahi-developed nutrition and wellbeing guidelines
6 months, $4,998

Dr Felicity Ware, Hāpai Te Hauora Tapui
Māmā aroha: enhancing the first free indigenous digital breastfeeding app
6 months, $5,000

2024 Pacific Health Research Career Development Awards

Pacific Health Research Master’s Scholarship

Miss Folole Fangupo, Auckland University of Technology
Exploring the cultural needs of Pacific service users in forensic mental health
12 months, $24,937

Ms Maria Satele, University of Otago
A Sāmoan perspective on the generational shift of violence in the home

12 months, $26,548

Ms Lavinia Topeni, Auckland University of Technology
Access to mental health services among Pacific young adults in New Zealand
12 months, $30,383

Miss Cecile Vine, The University of Auckland
Samoan students' mental wellbeing and belonging at Waipapa Taumata Rau
12 months, $29,625

Pacific Health Clinical Research Training Fellowship

Miss Esmeralda Lo Tam, The University of Auckland
Visual impairment in Aotearoa: Inequity in access for Pasifika to eye care
36 months, $260,000

Pacific Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship

Mrs Amio Matenga Ikihele, Moana Connect
The role of digital health tools and improving Pacific health and wellbeing
36 months, $469,657

Dr Samuela Ofanoa, The University of Auckland
Pacific gout intervention to improve Pacific men's understanding of gout and ULT
36 months, $469,657

Dr Siobhan Tu'akoi, The University of Auckland
A community co-design intervention to address rheumatic fever inequities
36 months, $487,549

Pacific Health Research PhD Scholarship

Julia Imo, The University of Auckland
Investigation of soft wearable sensors for human vitality monitoring
36 months, $132,350

Mrs Josie Timmins, Auckland University of Technology
Exploring the wellbeing of Sāmoan regulated healthcare workers
36 months, $127,558

Pacific Health Research Knowledge Translation Grant

Mrs Litiuingi Ahio, Auckland University of Technology
Nofo 'a Kainga: Impacts of NZ living systems on managing long-term conditions
6 months, $5,000

Dr Apo Aporosa, University of Waikato
Enhancing health outcomes: Educating healthcare workers on Pacific spirituality
6 months, $5,000

Dr Soana Muimuiheata, Auckland University of Technology
Me'akai/Food and Suka/Diabetes – Tongan youth perspectives
6 months, $5,000

Pacific Health Research Summer Studentship

Mereana Ave, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Method Development to measure dyslipidaemia in ovarian follicles
3 months, $7,500

Miss Justice Firestone, Massey University
Investigating prediabetes among adolescents in Aotearoa NZ
3 months, $7,500

Ms Beatrice Hessell, University of Otago
Managing for Pacific family violence within the workplace
4 months, $7,500

Miss Gloria Tu'itupou, The University of Auckland
Do kahoa lole impact Pacific health?
2 months, $7,500

2024 Career Development Awards – general category

HRC and Girdlers’ UK Fellowship

Dr Sophie Farrow, The University of Auckland
Epigenomics in Parkinson’s disease: a potential diagnostic tool?
36 months, Value to be determined

Sir Charles Hercus Fellowship

Dr Divya Adhia, University of Otago
Novel triple network neuromodulation treatment for chronic low back pain
48 months, $599,445

Dr Indranil Basak, University of Otago
Charting the neuroprotective role of a lncRNA in Parkinson's disease
48 months, $599,779

Associate Professor Aniruddha Chatterjee, University of Otago
Targeting the epigenetic signature of drug resistance in cancer
48 months, $599,958

Dr Bruce Harland, The University of Auckland
Enhancing and understanding functional improvements after spinal cord injury
48 months, $599,381

Dr Thomas Hills, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand
Improving outcomes for people with severe pneumonia
60 months, $591,568

Dr Iman Kavianinia, The University of Auckland
Multi-Drug antibody-drug conjugates for targeted cancer therapy
48 months, $599,244

Dr Gonzalo Maso Talou, The University of Auckland
An integrative diagnosis of neurovascular function for Alzheimer's disease
48 months, $505,964

Dr Silke Neumann, University of Otago
Developing novel targets and drugs for cancer therapy in Aotearoa New Zealand
48 months, $599,702

Clinical Research Training Fellowship

Dr Natalie Allen, The University of Auckland
Corneal transplantation in Aotearoa: COVID-19, confocal and clinical outcomes
27 months, $200,000

Dr Patrick Campbell, University of Otago
Enhancing the effectiveness and safety of leprosy control in Kiribati
36 months, $260,000

Dr Jane Canning, The University of Auckland
Effects of caffeine in late preterm infants
36 months, $260,000

Ms Katherine Forch, Auckland University of Technology
The SAFE For Play study for objective assessment of recovery after concussion
36 months, $260,000

Dr Andrew Fox-Lewis, The University of Auckland
Enhanced surveillance of Strep A disease in the Auckland region
48 months, $260,000

Dr Sarah Hunter, The University of Auckland
Cause and effect in childhood bone and joint infection
36 months, $260,000

Dr Sang Ho Kim, The University of Auckland
A novel wireless intracranial pressure sensor for patients with hydrocephalus
30 months, $220,000

Yutong Liu, The University of Auckland
Ectopic fat deposition: novel insights into nutrition and glycaemic control
29 months, $213,333

Dr Orna McGinn, The University of Auckland
Supporting primary care to achieve equitable outcomes in women’s health
36 months, $260,000

Dr Claudia Paterson, The University of Auckland
Probiotics/synbiotics and postoperative infection rates after colorectal surgery
28 months, $206,667

Dr Chris Varghese, The University of Auckland
A digital biomarker platform for upper gastrointestinal symptoms
36 months, $260,000

Ms Gillian Watson, University of Otago
Physiotherapists’ perspective of retention within Te Whatu Ora
32 months, $257,299

Clinical Practitioner Research Fellowship

Dr Hannah Jones, Auckland Hospitals Research And Endowment Fund
Reducing morbidity in children with neuroimmunological disorders
60 months, $717,542

Associate Professor Sharon Pattison, Te Whatu Ora - Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley
Understanding the molecular subtypes of gastric cancer in Aotearoa New Zealand
60 months, $784,062

Dr Michelle Pokorny, Te Whatu Ora - Counties Manukau
Extending the scope of audiologists to enhance paediatric ORL services
60 months, $487,700