A New Zealand scientist who has worked on the design of a drug with huge potential health benefits for treating brain injuries was the big winner in this year's Royal Society of New Zealand research honours.
Chemist Professor Margaret Brimble, from the School of Chemical Sciences at Auckland University, was awarded the country's highest science and technology honour, the Rutherford Medal, at a function in Auckland last night.
She also received the MacDiarmid Medal for outstanding scientific research that could have large human benefit, and she was awarded the Hector Medal for excellence in chemical sciences.
As the Rutherford Medal winner, Professor Brimble receives $100,000 from the Government.
She is only the second woman to receive the top award since it was established 21 years ago, following in the footsteps of biochemist Professor Christine Winterbourn from Otago University, won last year.
Brimble said the Rutherford Medal epitomised her sense of trying to do things in New Zealand, for New Zealand, with New Zealanders.
“I am personally very pleased that New Zealand has now recognised me, not for being a woman in science, but for my science.”
In her academic work, she and her team take complex natural molecules, such as shellfish toxins, and work out how to synthesise them using a mix of approaches, either mimicking natural synthesis pathways or using modern organic synthesis techniques.
“We have to combine all the approaches together to come up with the best way of tackling the molecule. It’s a fast-moving and competitive research area,” Brimble said.
Work on the brain injury drug involved modifying a naturally occurring peptide found in the brain after traumatic brain injury that helps prevent secondary cell death.
Brimble and her team created 120 similar versions of the natural peptide, one of which - NNZ-2566 - is more stable and better able to cross the blood-brain barrier than the natural version.
The United States army has invested US$23 million into the potential drug, which is now undergoing advanced human clinical trials.
The molecule could be beneficial for a wide range of patients, from those suffering concussion or head injury from accidents, ballistic head wounds, stroke sufferers and even people exposed to some toxins, the Royal Society said.
The global market for novel therapies in areas of significant unmet medical need such as traumatic brain injury was large with the potential for huge economic benefits to this country from the development of the world’s first drug for TBI.
“When we started working on the project, people said there was no way we could do it with a small team in academia, when pharmaceutical companies have hundreds of medicinal chemists to work on projects like this," Brimble said.
The top award for achievement in technology, the Pickering Medal was awarded to Professor David Williams, from the school of chemical sciences at Auckland University, for his contribution to the development of biomedical and gas sensors, which have been commercialised.
The Thomson Medal was awarded to Dr Richard Furneaux, distinguished scientist and group manager of carbohydrate chemistry at Industrial Research Limited, for his leadership of carbohydrate chemistry research and commercial application to biotechnology in New Zealand.
He leads what is regarded as the largest carbohydrate chemistry team in the world.
The inaugural Mason Durie Medal for advancing the frontiers of social science was awarded to Professor Russell Gray, deputy head (research) at the School of Psychology at Auckland University, for pioneering social science research on questions of fundamental relationships between human language, cognition and biology.
The Humanities Aronui Medal was awarded to Professor Alan Musgrave, Otago University, for his influence as a philosopher of science whose influence ranged widely across the humanities and social sciences.
The Hutton Medal for earth sciences was awarded to Professor R. Ewan Fordyce, from the Otago University Geology Department, for his contributions in New Zealand vertebrate paleontology, particularly for whales, dolphins and penguins.
The Sir Charles Hercus Medal for health sciences was awarded to John Fraser, dean of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at Auckland University, for pioneering studies on bacterial superantigens which have major implications for understanding and treating human infectious diseases.
The Pou Aronui Award went to Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, from Auckland University, for his contribution to the development of the humanities in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The Callaghan Medal for outstanding contribution to science communication was awarded to Professor Shaun Hendy, distinguished scientist at Industrial Research Limited, physics professor at Victoria University's School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and deputy director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.
The medal is for his outstanding work in raising public awareness of science and its role in increasing economic prosperity.
The Cooper Medal for research in physics or engineering was awarded to Dr Mark Poletti, Industrial Research Limited for his development of the globally preferred method for tuning concert hall acoustics.
The Jones Medal for lifetime achievements in mathematical sciences was awarded to Professor Robert Goldblatt, school of mathematics, statistics, and operations research at Victoria University, for research in modal logic and category theory.
The Dame Joan Metge Medal for excellence and building relationships in the social science research community was awarded to Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith, pro vice chancellor and dean of the school of Maori and Pacific development at Waikato University, for inspiring, mentoring and developing Maori researchers.
The Dame Joan Metge Medal was also awarded to Professor Janet Holmes, chair in linguistics at Victoria University, for her contribution to linguistics.
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