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Malaghan visiting researcher: Dr Chris Puli’uvea

22 May 2024

Dr Chris Puli’uvea is an immunologist at Auckland University of Technology and a recipient of the Cranwell Medal for his vaccine advocacy work in Māori and Pacific communities during the Covid-19 pandemic. He recently visited the Malaghan Institute to talk about his research and public outreach work. 

Dr Puli’uvea’s research focuses on the effects of unique gene variations present in some Māori and Pacific people and how this may affect the immune responses of these populations. He recently completed his PhD with Professor Peter Shepherd at the University of Auckland.

“The life expectancy of Māori and Pacific peoples in Aotearoa is still lower compared to other ethnic groups,” says Dr Puli’uvea. 

“This is related to socioeconomic factors as well as a lag in health and genetic research specifically related to these populations.”  

Research indicates that Māori and Pacific peoples possess thousands of unique genetic variants, many of these are genes expressed by the immune system.

“I investigated how specific gene variants can lead to functional difference compared to common versions of a gene and how this may affect health outcomes within those with the gene variant.”

Historically, Māori and Pacific populations have been isolated within the islands in the Pacific Ocean. This meant that when European voyagers arrived on the shores of the islands, these indigenous populations were particularly susceptible to the foreign diseases they bought with them. Diseases such as measles, influenza and tuberculosis resulted in a reduction of up to 90% of some of these populations. 

“Perhaps those with specific genetic variants that allowed them to endure these unfamiliar diseases survived. We believe this may be why the unique genetic variants we have identified has been associated with variations in immune and metabolic functions,” says Dr Puli’uvea.

“However, these genetic variants may not be advantageous in resolving diseases that afflict our society today. We need to find ways to tailor treatment and medication that account for these differences.”

Another key area of Dr Puli’uvea’s work is his public health education. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he recognised the 1pm national briefings were not effective at reaching Māori and Pacific populations. He engaged with these vulnerable communities by holding face-to-face events where he empowered them with key information about Covid-19.

Dr Puli’uvea’s public outreach work has led to key findings on how to effectively communicate with Māori and Pacific populations about health. As a result, Te Whatu Ora has worked closely with various community groups to further this health education beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The key to improving health equity in Aotearoa is a combination of doing more research into health and genetics and connecting with these vulnerable communities in the most effective way.”