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$6.2 million investment to curb New Zealand’s allergy epidemic

6 June 2013


Today the Health Research Council of New Zealand announced their ~$6.2 million investment into allergy research being undertaken at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

$5 million of the funding has been awarded to Malaghan Institute Director Professor Graham Le Gros over five years, to establish a core of allergic disease specialists here in New Zealand focused on understanding allergic disease and how it can be treated more effectively.

Senior Malaghan Institute researcher Professor Franca Ronchese will also receive $1.2 million for a three-year project investigating the very early stages of the allergic immune response.

New Zealand has one of the highest prevalence rates of allergic disease in the developed world, affecting up to 20% of the population - mainly young people of working age and their children. The economic impact of allergies in Australia is $7.8 billion, with similar per capita rates estimated for NZ.

“Part of the problem is that allergic diseases are simply poorly understood, with much critical detail of the immune mechanisms responsible for causing allergy still unknown,” says Prof Le Gros. “This is compounded by our need for improved public health initiatives, therapeutic interventions and clinical services for people affected by allergy. In short, New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is facing a major crisis in coping with this ever increasing health issue.”

Prof Le Gros’ research programme will seek to identify the cellular and molecular mechanisms that cause allergic diseases, and establish ways to use this knowledge to develop therapies or measures for treating them. This work is underpinned by that of Prof Ronchese, whose HRC-funded research will focus specifically on the skin, the first line of exposure to potential allergy-causing agents, and dendritic cells, the immune cells that drive the development of the allergic immune response.

“It is our contention that once we understand how and why the immune systems of certain individuals react to harmless environmental allergens such as pollens or food proteins, we will better be able to control these responses naturally, with immunotherapies or vaccines. It is the very earliest stages of the allergic immune response that are important. Once we have identified these, we can be more targeted in our approach to treating allergic disease.”

Prof Le Gros’ team made significant progress in this area recently, with their joint discovery of a unique type of immune cell in the skin, termed ILC2 cells, which they have linked to the development of allergic skin disease.

“We will use our HRC funding to build on pivotal discoveries such as these and create a core of allergic disease committed immunologists, molecular biologists, disease modelling experts, clinical specialists and community advisors here in New Zealand, supported by a world leading international scientific network. The outcome of which will be the generation of critical knowledge, expertise and technologies to ensure the health and economic wellbeing of New Zealand in the future.”


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About the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research

The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research is New Zealand’s leading vaccine and immunology research institute and is based at Victoria University of Wellington’s Kelburn campus. The Institute operates independently and is a charitable trust. Researchers at the Malaghan Institute are focused on developing innovative ways to harness the strength and potency of the immune system, the body’s own natural defence against disease, to treat cancer, asthma and allergy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis and infectious disease.