Locally funded research, far-reaching benefits

Last updated 05:00 11/12/2012
MRI scanning

CUTTING-EDGE RESEARCH: Researchers funded by the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation prepare a volunteer for a session in the MRI scanner.

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Cantabrians and indeed people throughout the world are benefitting from research undertaken right here in Christchurch and funded entirely through donations.

In 1963, David Poswillo received the first research grant awarded by the newly established Canterbury Medical Research Foundation.

His grant of seven pounds, ten shillings and sixpence enabled him to undertake research - in his garden shed, no less - into cleft lips and palates.

Poswillo went on to a distinguished career in facial surgery and his work relating to anaesthesia, sedation and resuscitation in dental practice is credited with saving many lives.

Poswillo's story of success in the medical world is echoed many times over by other recipients of Canterbury Medical Research Foundation research grants.

Since it was established in 1960, the foundation has funded hundreds of research projects which have contributed to better health for Cantabrians, and in some cases, led to ground breaking results and world-first discoveries.

The late emeritus professor Sir Don Beavan was the driving force behind the establishment, direction and success of the foundation and his involvement only ended with his death in 2009.

Those who worked with Beavan say there is little doubt that he was one of the keystones to the success of an organisation which has played a pivotal role in encouraging and funding internationally recognised medical research.

From the outset, the primary objectives of the foundation were to attract funding to support research in Canterbury, to enable projects assessed as having merit to get traction, and to bridge interim gaps in funding applications. It continues to meet these objectives thanks to the support of Canterbury's medical fraternity, universities and the wider community, the efforts of the executive and co-opted members and, of course, the generosity of donors.

The foundation's executive director Guy Johnson says: "The Canterbury Medical Research Foundation has played a huge role over the past 50 years helping emerging researchers get a foot on the first rung of the research ladder which will lead them to the world stage. The foundation has contributed close to $18 million in promoting better health for Cantabrians through research - something we can all be hugely proud of."

In 2003, associate professor Richard Gearry was awarded the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation Fellowship for three years, allowing him to work on his PhD investigating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in Canterbury. He has possibly done more than any other health researcher in New Zealand to advance understanding of IBD and he's adamant that the support of the foundation has been vitally important in this achievement.

He says the grant was "tremendously helpful as it enabled me to concentrate on this important research over an extended period, without having to worry about applying for other grants. There's no way I'd have achieved the same results so quickly without this support. We've now published over 50 academic papers on findings from my PhD. GPs are now much more aware of IBD than in the past, which encourages earlier diagnosis."

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Over the decades the foundation has provided grants for research into a diverse spectrum of subjects including endocrinology, community health care, hypertension, keyhole surgery, emphysema, prostate problems, kidney function and Parkinson's Disease.

Johnson says that although vastly different, the research projects funded by the foundation all have at least one thing in common. "They were all undertaken by recent medical and science graduates based in Canterbury, fulfilling a fundamental objective of the foundation to exclusively fund local research initiatives and to give young medical professionals research opportunities they might otherwise miss out on."

Since the late 1960s, the foundation has also funded a summer studentship programme which has given over 350 undergraduate medical and science students their first introduction to research under the guidance of expert supervisors from hospitals and universities in the region.

One of the programme's earliest students was Peter Joyce, now the Dean of the University of Otago's School of Medicine. Joyce has an international reputation in mental health research.

The Canterbury Medical Research Foundation receives no government funding. Remarkably, every dollar it has raised over the past five decades has come from corporate, service club and personal donations, bequests and fundraising events such as the foundation's annual wine and art auction which last year alone raised a phenomenal $100,000.

"We have a database of very supportive givers and we've had some incredibly generous donations over the years," explains Johnson.

Donors can nominate the science or medical field they wish their donation to be used for. This was the case in 2002 when the estate of businessman Cas Van der Veer donated $1.5M to the foundation to look at improving the quality of life for people with Parkinson's Disease.

The Van der Veer donation has resulted in a centre of excellence in brain research - the Brain Research Institute - which currently boasts 84 active research projects, the research licence for New Zealand's first 3T MRI scanner and partnerships with the likes of the University of Canterbury, the Christchurch School of Medicine and the Canterbury District Health Board.

In the words of the late Professor David Poswillo, the foundation has provided for many "the thrill of discovery. For that achievement alone the foundation stands tall in the eyes of the world of medical science."

Vision Statement

To improve the health of Cantabrians by supporting quality medical research through funding of health researchers in our community and promoting the potential benefits.

Past Success

The opportunities the foundation has given to young researchers over the past fifty years, and the benefits this has had on the health of Cantabrians through better informed medical professionals.

Future Hope

To foster and promote the benefits of health research at the same level for the next fifty years.

Greatest Achievement

The establishment of the New Zealand Brain Research Institute as a subsidiary, and negotiating the MRI scanning research licence which enables students to undertake unique neurological research, thus fulfilling the aspiration of our founder Prof Sir Don Beavan.

- The Press

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