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Leading Australian and New Zealand child health research institutes join forces

Institute News
Tuesday, July 4, 2017 - 9:00am
New Zealand and Australia’s leading child health research institutes are joining forces to advance our understanding of how nutrition interacts with a person’s genetic makeup to shape health and wellbeing.

The new collaboration between the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the Liggins Institute, dubbed “The GENO Project”, has received $1.5m from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s Catalyst Project fund, which supports international research partnerships and scientific cooperation.

“The New Zealand-Australia LifeCourse Collaboration on Genes, Environment, Nutrition and Obesity (GENO) will create an exciting collaborative partnership between Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and New Zealand’s leading child health research organisations and Liggins Institute (Auckland). GENO will generate discoveries that could lead to treatments of prevention of some of the most serious diet-related health issues facing our two countries today.

“This exciting partnership will give bring a wealth of new expertise to one of MCRI’s largest longitudinal studies, our landmark CheckPoint study to improve our understanding of how what we eat as children and adults interacts with other environmental factors and our genetic make-up to determine our nutritional health and its outcomes, including obesity,” said Professor Kathryn North, director of MCRI.

The collaboration gives researchers at the Liggins Institute access to a wealth of data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), which has followed 10,000 children since 2004. This includes 150,000 blood and other biosamples collected by MCRI’s landmark Child Health CheckPoint project, which has also produced an in-depth snapshot of the physical health of nearly 2000 LSAC parent-child pairs when the children were 11-12 years old.

Professor North says, “GENO will generate discoveries that could lead to treatments and prevention of some of the most serious diet-related health issues facing our two countries today.”

GENO will also generate PhD and postdoctoral opportunities that will grow New Zealand and Australia’s future researchers, and opens up new potential international investment and research in the two countries.

MCRI will benefit from the Liggins Institute’s international leadership in both nutritional systems biology, which uses computer models to illuminate the interplay of genes, diet and lifestyle; and methods to more deeply reveal the “genetic architecture” of health and disease.

Professor Richard Saffery, MCRI Cell Biology Group Leader and Australian lead of the proposal explains “This substantial investment of funding will enable state of the art genetic analysis of several thousand children and their parents as part of the MCRI CheckPoint study. When combined with a suite of additional nutritional measures being assessed in NZ, this is a powerful approach to more fully understand the role of gene and environment in a range of health outcomes.”

Child Health CheckPoint study lead, paediatrician Professor Melissa Wake, recently returned to Auckland after 25 years at MCRI where she still also holds a position.

“Australia and New Zealand may be arch rivals in the sports field,” she says, “but in bettering health we make natural teammates. Our two populations are broadly similar in terms of health profile, and we are both struggling with the toll taken by obesity and other non-communicable diseases. Both institutes see this project as the beginning of an enduring partnership.”

Professor Wake says cross-national regional collaborations such as this are the way of the future, mirroring developments in Europe, the UK and the US.

“We talk about ‘harmonising’ research – aligning the way we collect and analyse data so we can seamlessly collaborate and make our research much more effective.”

GENO stands for the New Zealand-Australia LifeCourse Collaboration on Genes, Environment, Nutrition and Obesity. Specific research projects include:

  • Developing methods to predict how each individual’s DNA sequence contributes to their health and wellbeing and better predict obesity risk and the outcome of targeted interventions
  • An investigation of the critical role of micronutrients (vitamins, essential fatty and amino acids, and minerals) in metabolic health.