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Genetics Otago
University of Otago Research Centre

Surprise discovery with big scientific potential

An international team of researchers, led by Professor Peter Fineran and including Dr Nils Birkholz as lead author (both Genetics Otago members) have made a breakthrough in antibiotic alternative treatments for bacterial infections.

Check out the Otago University Newsroom article for more details, or read the full paper published in Nature!

Birkholz N, Kamata K, Feussner M, Wilkinson ME, Samaniego CC, Migur A, et al. Phage anti-CRISPR control by an RNA- and DNA-binding helix–turn–helix protein. Nature. 2024;1–8.

HRC Project Grant for GO Member


Congratulations to Genetics Otago member, Dr Megan Leask (Department of Physiology), who has recently been awarded a Health Research Council (HRC) Project Grant!


Translational ‘omics of the hidden genome for equitable precision medicine

Cardiometabolic diseases (e.g., type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease and gout) are increasing in prevalence worldwide at an alarming rate. A precision medicine approach to tackling metabolic disease, informed by an individual’s genetics, promises to save lives, improve quality of life and lower medical costs. However, for Māori and Pacific people there is a critical need to expand the development of genetic resources and analyses, and build genetics capabilities in Aotearoa if these groups are to receive equal medical care in the future. In this study, we aim to reduce the precision medicine gap for Māori and Pacific people by applying large data techniques to genetic data from Māori and Pacific individuals, and identify unique genetics that can be targeted in the treatment and prevention of metabolic diseases.

36 months, $1,199,988

Poutoko Taiea appointments recognise impactful contributions

Genetics Otago member and founding director Professor Peter Dearden has been named as one of six Distinguished Chair – Poutoko Taiea appointments.

Read more about Prof Dearden and the other recipients on the Otago Newsroom page.

Students shine in ‘rare’ essay competition

Fifth-year medical student Gavin Bishop , who has previously worked with Genetics Otago in a science communication capacity, has won the top prize in a 500-word essay competition run by Rare Disorders New Zealand (RDNZ).

Read details of the competition on the Otago Newsroom page and check out Gavin’s winning entry here!

It is great to see an interest and understanding of Rare Disorders in the next generation of healthcare professionals. Congratulations Gavin!

GO Members among HRC Recipients

The Health Research Council has awarded grants to two Genetics Otago Members in its recent funding round.

Dr George Wiggins (Pathology and Biomedical Science (UOC))

Emerging Researcher Grants – $399,992

Advancing breast and ovarian cancer prevention strategies

Women at high-risk of breast and ovarian cancer need new and effective prevention strategies. Traditional options for cancer prevention include risk-reducing surgery, however this strategy is unwanted by many women due to a variety of reasons, such as fertility and menopause concerns. Providing doctors with a non-invasive and easily accessible preventative therapy for women at high risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer would have numerous benefits for the health system (e.g. reduced inequity in health outcomes), and for the patients and their whānau. Through a recent novel discovery in my laboratory, and collaboration with the world leading CIMBA Consortium, I am uniquely positioned to investigate potential novel preventative therapies for women at high-risk of breast and ovarian cancer. This innovative and potentially transformative research programme will provide a step towards reducing cancer diagnoses through the development of personalised preventative treatment(s).

Associate Professor Sara Filoche (Department of Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Women’s Health (UOW))

Explorer Grant – $150,000

Building room for equity: Culture centred design of hospital waiting rooms

Hospitals in Aotearoa New Zealand have a legacy founded in colonialism and are designed to Eurocentric principles of health and well-being – as such they are inequitable by design and represent culturally unsafe spaces for many people who need to access them. Hospital waiting rooms represent one such space. Our project is premised on understanding how physical spaces in hospitals shape people’s experiences of care. Bringing culture centred design to hospital spaces holds potential as a new mechanism to supporting culturally safe healthcare practice. This project realises a new, unique collaboration between healthcare professionals, healthcare scientists, Māori health researchers and an indigenous design agency. It is the first of its kind in Aotearoa. The project will involve communities and health consumers through a kaupapa Māori design process to co-create a re-imagined virtual waiting room and inform healthcare environment design more broadly.

Cause of rare genetic condition discovered

Genetics Otago member Amy Jones (PhD student in the Robertson group) is the lead author of a recently published paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics. The research on Glutamine Synthetase Stabilization Disorder involved an international team of researchers and provides “an excellent example of finely tuned precision medicine”.

Read more via the Otago Newsroom.

Publication details:

Clustered de novo Start-Loss Variants in GLUL Result in a Developmental and Epileptic Encephalopathy via Stabilization of Glutamine Synthetase

Amy G Jones, Matilde Aquilino, Rory J Tinker, Laura Duncan, Zandra Jenkins, Gemma L Carvill, Stephanie J DeWard, Dorothy K Grange, MJ Hajianpour, Benjamin J Halliday, Muriel Holder-Espinasse, Judit Horvath, Silvia Maitz, Vincenzo Nigro, Manuela Morleo, Victoria Paul, Careni Spencer, Alina I Esterhuizen, Tilman Polster, Alice Spano, Inés Gómez-Lozano, Abhishek Kumar, Gemma Poke, John A Phillips III, Hunter R Underhill, Gregory Gimenez, Takashi Namba, and Stephen P Robertson.

American Journal of Human Genetics

Teaching Excellence Award



Congratulations to Genetics Senior Teaching Fellow, Dr Gillian MacKay, on being awarded a University of Otago Excellence in Teaching Award for 2024!

Read more in this Otago Newsroom article.

Antarctica’s coasts are becoming less icy

Genetics Otago Professor Ceridwen Fraser (Department of Marine Science) has led a study on how an increase in pockets of open water in Antarctica’s sea ice (polynyas) may mean coastal plants and animals could one day establish on the continent.

Read more in the Otago Newsroom article.

Publication details

Emerging long-term trends and interdecadal cycles in Antarctic polynyas
Grant A. Duffy, Fabien Montiel, Ariaan Purich, Ceridwen I. Fraser.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Zoology Academic joins International Science Council


Distinguished Professor Hamish Spencer is honoured to share his expertise as a Fellow of the International Science Council, supporting their mission to act as the global voice for science.

Genetics Otago member Distinguished Professor Hamish Spencer has received international recognition as a new Fellow of the International Science Council (ISC).

Read more on the Otago Bulletin

On the GO 2023!

Our 2023 magazine is now available, you can access it here, or email if you would like to have a physical copy sent to you.