Fellowship funding will aid Otago researchers to alleviate organ shortage

Dr Alana Alexander, University of Otago

National, 16th November 2021: An Otago researcher is one step closer to 3D-bioprinting functioning organs in a laboratory after being awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship by the Royal Society Te Apārangi. Dr Khoon Lim, from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and Musculoskeletal Medicine at the University of Otago, Christchurch, is one of three Otago researchers who will receive $800,000 over five years thanks to the fellowship.
Dr Lim’s research, which aims to overcome the barriers of engineering living tissues in a laboratory using 3D-bioprinting, has the potential to alleviate the world’s organ shortage crisis. “In Aotearoa, the waiting time for an organ donor is often between four to 30 months and many people suffer complications or die before a donation becomes available,” he says. While there have been past breakthroughs in creating living tissues, the largest functional,
laboratory-made tissue is only about 2mm in size. Dr Lim says scaling this up is hindered by the inability to incorporate functional blood vessel systems within these tissues, which is critical for the survival of the organs. He says the news is still sinking in, but he is “absolutely stoked” to receive the fellowship.

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Also celebrating being awarded a fellowship is Dr Alana Alexander (Ngāpuhi: Te Hikutu, Pākehā), from the Department of Anatomy. Her research will look at the past impacts of fisheries on the endangered Hector’s and Māui dolphins and use genomics to predict the impact of future climate change on whales and dolphins. She will also co-develop “science pūrākau” with hapū – a way of translating her scientific work into memorable narratives that will empower those who hold kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga over taonga species. “Many iwi has strong relationships with whales and dolphins, however, there have been barriers to putting insights of genomic research on taonga species into the hands of hapori Māori. “Science pūrākau will help support the significance and legitimacy of Te Ao Māori knowledge
structures,” Dr Alexander says. Dr Htin Lin Aung, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, received the fellowship for his research using bacterial genomics which will develop community and patient-centred tuberculosis (Tb) healthcare services, in order to tackle health inequalities.

“Māori and Pasifika, respectively, have six- and 16-times higher rates of Tb compared to Pākehā,” he says. “Inequities in Tb also carry health implications not only for an individual but for whānau and the wider community.” Dr Aung says the fellowship allows him to mentor the next generation of researchers, particularly Māori and Pasifika students and early career researchers, which will help diversify Aotearoa’s health research workforce. University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise, Professor Richard Blaikie, says the fellowships will accelerate the research for three of Otago’s best and brightest emerging leaders.

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“The research programmes on our Dunedin and Christchurch campuses will be enhanced significantly and, more importantly, communities across Aotearoa and the world will benefit from their discoveries,” Professor Blaikie says.
“We congratulate them, and all the other Rutherford Discovery Fellows, on these prestigious awards.”

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