2024 HOPE Scholars

Posted by Karen Mumme on 20 February 2024

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Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and the work of the Friends of HOPE, the HOPE Foundation has granted nine scholarships for research into ageing related studies in 2024. Of these nine, five are 2023 scholars able to continue their work and one was a 2021/22 summer student, now doing more research. These are all very worthy recipients and hopefully their work will make a difference to the lives of New Zealanders in the future.

Enjoy reading about their interesting and inspiring projects.

Thomas Bird

PhD candidate, Victoria University

Biological Science; Main supervisor, Associate Professor Davide Comoletti

Structural and functional characterization of the FAM171 family of neuronal proteins

Tom Bird sitting by computer in lab coatAn ageing population is a positive for individuals and communities in New Zealand who are able enjoy longer lives together, however it also entails an increase in the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases. The rate of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) in particular is predicted to double by 2050.

AD is a complex disease primarily characterised by the formation of protein aggregates within the brain. This dysregulated protein behaviour causes damage to the neuronal networks in the brain, resulting in damage to brain tissue and the clinical presentation of dementia. The dysregulation of disease signalling pathways that lead to AD are still not fully understood.

FAM171 A2 is a neuronal receptor that has been shown to be a potential regulator of protein aggregation in mouse models of AD. My PhD research is focused on characterising the structure and function of the three-member FAM171 family of proteins using biochemical and biophysical techniques. So far I have found these proteins to interact with each other and themselves with high affinities. Efforts to understand the atomic structure of these proteins, alone and when in a complex with each other, have been successful and we are beginning to understand several details of their structures. The knowledge gained from my research as well as in vivo research from our collaborator at the Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research, Belgium, shall hopefully provide a better understanding of the role of FAM171 proteins in AD. This will provide new avenues for understanding the progression of AD and potential therapeutic development.

I am very grateful to be chosen to receive this award for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is reassuring to receive an award for my research and knowing someone also thinks that what I spend the majority of my time researching is a worthwhile investment. And also, I guess more obviously given the high cost of living at the moment, this extra money will also relieve a lot of stress financially and allow me to be fully focussed on my research and completing my PhD this year.

Rubina Bogati

PhD candidate, University of Auckland

Nursing; Main supervisor, Professor Vanessa Burholt

Later life work decisions of older Asian workers in New Zealand

Rubina BogartiNew Zealand (NZ) has an ageing workforce due to a drop in working-aged people and an ageing population, thus more workforce involvement of older people has been promoted for economic sustainability. Simultaneously, the reliance on migrants to fill the gap in the workforce has increased the diversity of the population and the workforce. Asian countries are top contributors to NZ’s net migration gains. Statistics NZ has projected Asian people to be the second-largest ethnic group in NZ by 2043. The number of older Asian people and their involvement in the workforce will also increase in the future, but minimal research has been done to understand this group of workers.

Research thus far has identified the decision to work in later life is driven by older people's need to work or their choice to work. As people live longer, they also choose to work longer, particularly if their health, social and workplace structure supports their working ability. However, working in later life is necessary for some older people with financial or social needs that require them to continue working. Some life-course factors, such as wealth and education, affect the decision to work in later life, which varies significantly among people from diverse ethnicities. Additionally, sociocultural differences between ethnic groups shape their decision to work in later life.

For older Asian people, what keeps them in the workforce and expediates their retirement is under-researched. This lack of research leaves unanswered questions regarding their participation, motivations, barriers, cultural influences, necessities, and choices of working in later life. My PhD research aims to understand the later-life work decisions of older Asian workers in NZ. I am a PhD candidate at the School of Nursing, University of Auckland. I have a nursing background. I am sincerely grateful for the HOPE Foundation scholarship awarded for my PhD studies. This opportunity will help further ageing research and support my development as an aspiring ageing researcher in NZ.

Chunxu Chen

PhD candidate, Auckland University of Technology

Health; Main supervisor, Dr Kay Shannon

Organisational support for older registered nurses’ continuation of practice in inpatient hospital settings

Chunxu ChenThe nursing workforce is ageing, and this demographic shift has significant implications for the healthcare system. Older nurses bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the workforce; however, research conducted internationally and locally suggests that workplace ageism can be a significant barrier to the continuation of practice for older nurses. Workplace ageism refers to discriminatory behaviours or attitudes towards older workers, which can negatively affect their employment opportunities, job satisfaction, and well-being. It could also hinder older nurses’ access to organisational support, such as opportunities for professional development, flexible work arrangements, and supportive leadership.

The purpose of my research is to explore older registered nurses' and organisational representatives' perceptions of organisational support for older registered nurses' continuation of practice in inpatient hospital settings. In particular, this study aims to understand how older registered nurses and organisational representatives perceive the level of organisational support provided to older registered nurses and how this support influences older registered nurses’ continuation of practice in inpatient hospital settings. I will use the interpretive description methodology to develop a rich and contextualised understanding of the topic using two data sources. Purposive sampling will be used to recruit ten older registered nurses who work in inpatient hospital settings and five organisational representatives employed at the relevant districts of Te Whatu Ora-Health New Zealand.

This study will contribute to the understanding of organisational support for older registered nurses in their work environment and how it affects their decision to continue practicing in inpatient hospital settings in the New Zealand context. Recommendations will be made to Te Whatu Ora-Health New Zealand on strategies for supporting older registered nurses to remain in the workforce and ways to address workplace ageism in their practice settings.

Josephine Dixon

PhD candidate, University of Canterbury

Main supervisor, Professor Chris Petty

Optical methods for blood analyte monitoring

Josephine DixonThe prevalence of type 2 diabetes is increasing epidemically, and ~250,000+ people in New Zealand live with this disease. Type 2 diabetes significantly increases with age and is expected to increase by 70%-90% by 2040 (far faster than the population). Increased insulin resistance leads to high blood glucose, which, over time, leads to serious complications such as heart disease, blindness, limb amputations, and early death. It is almost exclusively a disease of older adults.

Poor blood glucose management is the primary culprit behind these complications and carries an estimated economic cost of 1% GDP/year (~2-3NZ$B/year) and growing. The key to good control is easily accessed, low-cost, high adherence, and non-invasive/pain-free glucose measurement. To date, the pin-stick (painful, low adherence) and implanted glucose sensors ($50-100/week) available do not meet these needs. The result is very poor compliance to regular blood glucose measurement and resulting poor control.

Thus, there is an urgent need to develop low-cost, non-invasive blood glucose monitoring methods to increase compliance, accessibility, and thus, health outcomes for people living with diabetes in New Zealand and internationally. My research focuses on creating and validating optical methodologies for blood analyte sensing with a key focus on blood glucose. The technology utilises small, narrow-band, near-infrared light-emitting diodes to both emit and detect signals. I work within a diverse team of researchers to integrate the sensor into a Low-cost Equitable Artificial Pancreas System (LEAPS). The project will provide significant impact on health care and outcomes for older adults.

Benjamin Krinkel

PhD candidate, University of Auckland

Biological Sciences; Main supervisor, Professor Kerry Loomes

Inhibiting malic enzymes in the fight against cancer

Ben KrinkelCancer poses a significant health challenge globally and in New Zealand, with thousands of new cases and deaths recorded each year. This underscores the urgent need to develop effective treatments to improve the survival and wellbeing of cancer patients.
One of the key features of cancer is its ability to alter its metabolism to support rapid cell growth. Essentially, cancer cells change the way they process energy, favouring a method known as anaerobic respiration, which differs from the normal aerobic respiration process. Malic enzymes are important players in this altered metabolic pathway, as they help convert certain compounds to sustain the energy needs of rapidly dividing cancer cells.
My research focuses on investigating two specific small molecules, NPD-389 and embonic acid, which are known to inhibit the activity of a particular enzyme called malic enzyme 2. By employing biophysical methods and crystallisation studies, I aim to understand how these inhibitors interact with the enzyme at a molecular level. This knowledge is crucial because it can reveal whether these inhibitors have the potential to be developed further into more effective drugs.
My work seeks to understand how certain chemicals can stop the activity of a key enzyme in cancer cells, potentially leading to the development of better drugs to target cancer metabolism. The findings from this research could have significant implications for future drug development strategies aimed at tackling cancer more effectively.

Conor Nelson

PhD candidate, University of Auckland

Biomedical science; Main supervisor, Associate Professor Deborah Young

Anti-GluN1 antibodies as a therapeutic approach to treating cognitive decline in ageing.

Conor NelsonAs the global population continues to age, new therapies are needed to assist the growing number of people affected by age-related neurodegenerative disease. Whilst there are some treatments which are able to relieve symptoms, we also need therapeutics that can modify the progression of these diseases.

Our lab has developed an antibody-based immunotherapy targeting the GluN1 subunit of NMDA glutamate receptors. These receptors are essential to the process of learning and memory, and NMDA receptor dysfunction is implicated in the aetiology of many neurodegenerative diseases. We have previously demonstrated that treatment with these antibodies has neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing effects in aged mice. This project takes the next step towards bringing our GluN1 antibody therapy to clinical trial.

My research aims to determine whether this therapy is able to modify disease progression in mouse models of Huntington’s disease. This is a disease of particular significance to New Zealand, as we have one of the highest rates of Huntington’s disease in the world at ~1 in every 10,000 people. If successful, this therapy may also offer a therapeutic benefit in other dementia-associated illnesses.

Additionally, due to the nature of dementias as diseases of ageing, I have also been investigating the potential of viral vectors as a means to provide long-term antibody delivery for chronic treatment. The goal here is to develop a vaccine using a modified non-pathogenic adeno-associated virus to cause the immune system to make these therapeutic anti-GluN1 antibodies internally. If the antibodies generated through this method offer the same therapeutic benefits as those we have previously made in our lab, not only could this technology be helpful as a tool for rapidly screening models of additional age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease or frontotemporal dementia, but this vaccination approach could facilitate a viable prophylactic treatment for neurodegenerative disease.

Christine Roseveare

PhD candidate, Massey University

Public Health; Main supervisor, Dr Linda Murray

Exploring companion animal fostering as a health promotion initiative for older adults

Christine RoseveareWe welcome back Christine, a 2023 HOPE scholar. Here are details of her project.

Can caring for a companion animal be part of successful aging? Most, but not all research supports the belief that pets are good for us and animal companionship may benefit the mental and physical health of older adults specifically. But barriers to owning a pet may be greater in older age. Cost or concerns about dying before a pet may interfere. Families or institutions may discourage pet ownership because of concerns about infection, or fears that adequate care for pets may become a challenge in the long term.

Ownership is the not the only way an older person can benefit from human animal interaction. Regular contact may also benefit health, although fleeting contact may provide little benefit and direct involvement in caregiving appears to be important.

This is where animal fostering, which usually involves being a short-term animal guardian comes in. My research focuses on cat fostering programmes and will explore the health promoting potential of cat fostering for older adults.

I hope that this research will lead to two things: a greater understanding of the benefits of the human animal bond for older people and more opportunities for those older people who wish to, to have companion animals in their lives.

 Tara Sani

 PhD candidate, University of Auckland

 Physiological medicine; Main supervisor, Associate Professor Sarah Cullum

 Empowering dementia carers with iSupport Virtual Assistant (eDIVA)

I am a third-year PhD student at the Department of Psychological Medicine, University of Auckland and it is an honour for me to receive the HOPE Scholarship for the second year.

My PhD research focuses on developing a New Zealand adaptation of the iSupport for Dementia, an online training programme developed by the World Health Organization to support carers of people living with dementia.

In the past two years, I have worked with dementia experts, healthcare practitioners, and a group of carers across New Zealand to co-design the local iSupport adaptation. It is now hosted on a website called e-DiVA (which stands for ‘Empowering Dementia Carers with an iSupport Virtual Assistant’), which was developed as part of a cross-country collaboration with dementia researchers in Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

The website has been tested by a small group of carers and care professionals in early 2024. After further refinements, now we are investigating the usability, feasibility and possible effects of this website on reducing carers’ stress levels through a pilot randomised-controlled trial.

We all can do our parts to support people with dementia and their carers to continue to live well. My hope is that this research will add another resource for carers of people living with dementia in New Zealand that can improve their caregiving experience.

Mathew Shuen

MBChB/PhD candidate, University of Otago

Physiology; Main supervisor, Associate Professor Phil Sheard

Age-related changes to nuclear pore complex proteins in human myocardium

Mathew Shuen

My name is Mathew Shuen. I am an MBChB/PhD student in the department of physiology at the University of Otago. 

Age related heart disease is a leading cause of death and loss of independence as we get older. My research is aimed at improving our understanding of fundamental age-related changes of the heart. Specifically, the key proteins in the nucleus of heart muscle cells. These proteins, called nucleoporins, are not replaced as cells age and thus can be damaged or lost with time. Hence, they can lose their ability to help the nucleus communicate with the rest of the cell, ultimately leading to cell dysfunction or death. This is especially important in heart muscle cells, as these are generally not renewed throughout a person’s life, meaning loss or damage to these proteins occurs over an entire lifetime.

To study these proteins, I am using fluorescence immunohistochemistry to detect and measure selected nucleoporins in heart muscle across a range of ages, using generously donated human tissue from the HeartOtago tissue bank. This work is based on previous findings in the Sheard laboratory studying nucleoporins in motor neurons of mice, which similarly are not renewed as we age. Our hope is that this work could one day lead to the development of interventions directly targeting these underlying causes of the ageing heart.

NOTE: Mathew was also a recipient of a 2021/22 Summer Scholarship - you can read about his project on the benefits of high intensity training on muscle.

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