Medical researcher's quest to assist patients

23:02, Jun 28 2013
Jamie Sleigh
Knockout know-how: A Waikato Medical Research Foundation is helping Professor Jamie Sleigh to research the way anaesthetics work on the human body.

An expert anaesthetist, Jamie Sleigh wants to know more about what happens when he puts a hospital patient to sleep - and what happens to them after they wake up.

Based at Waikato Hospital, Professor Sleigh has been investigating the process of anaesthesia and how it causes people to become unconscious with the help of a grant from the Waikato Medical Research Foundation.

"People in our profession have been anaesthetising patients for around 150 years and yet there is still not a great deal of understanding of the science of how it works. We need to know more about what anaesthetics do on a molecular level and how it affects the nerve cells in the human body.

"If we can gain a better understanding of the mechanics of how such things occur, an understanding of the neuroscience of consciousness, we may be able to lessen the side effects of some anaesthetics."

While most of the drugs used in general and local anaesthetics were quite effective, there was always room for improvement, he said, particularly for those who woke up feeling very groggy or nauseous after their operation or procedure.

"Most people wake up feeling reasonably OK, but things could always be better. What we need are more effective ways of controlling the level of consciousness and controlling the level of pain."

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While it was not quite within his sphere of study, Professor Sleigh also knew of research projects being made on the longer-term effects of anaesthesia, such as whether there was any permanent impact on their cognitive or thinking abilities.

"It is a really interesting field. If say, an older person with a broken hip is administered half a general and half a spinal anaesthetic and they experienced a subsequent deterioration in brain function, it would be interesting to know whether any of that was attributable to the anaesthetic or if it was due to their surgery experience as a whole."

Originally from Zimbabwe, Professor Sleigh later moved to the United Kingdom, where he became a specialist anaesthetist, and then on to New Zealand in 1988 where, after four years in Whanganui, he relocated to Hamilton, where he has been domiciled since. The only A-rated researcher based at the hospital, he is due to leave today for a three-month sabbatical assignment at Oxford University, on the subject of how certain kinds of anaesthetics switch off different parts of the human brain.

Although it is not widely known outside the hospital campus, the Waikato Medical Research Foundation has been helping fund medical research in the region for almost 30 years. It has a capital fund of $1.3 million, but wants to boost this to $5m since it has an increasing number of worthwhile proposals to consider. The foundation recently launched a fundraising campaign to highlight its work and share some success stories, such as Professor Sleigh's ongoing work.

Last year, it had 19 applications requesting nearly a total of $465,000, far more than the sum available. With assistance from Trust Waikato, the foundation distributed $136,963 among nine proposals from researchers at Waikato Hospital, the University of Waikato and AgResearch. The largest sum given was nearly $25,000 and the smallest $4500.

To donate to the Waikato Medical Research Foundation visit its website, www.wmrf.org.nz/ and click on the "donate" tab .

mike.mather@waikatotimes.co.nz

Waikato