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26 April 2021
Wellington's Malaghan Institute of Medical Research has long been a force in the health sector. With grit and determination they are doing the groundwork for New Zealand on conditions from cancer to asthma and allergies. And now they've been tasked with helping to ensure ongoing access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for New Zealand and Pacific neighbours.
Professor Graham Le Gros is the Director of the Institute and says all 100 staff are driven by the fact we can achieve much more in medical research. He says his team works for the benefit of those impacted by cancer and disease.
“We know current solutions, like chemotherapy for cancer, can be complicated and result in differing outcomes for different patients. So, it’s really a mixture of noble ambition, or ambition by the founders if you like, to try and do better for our community,” Graham says.
Established in 1966, the Malaghan Institute is New Zealand’s leading independent medical research institute and plays an integral role in the health of the country.
“New Zealand needs to have its centres of research excellence because we only survive by how good the science is. The search for a Covid-19 vaccine has been a case in point,” he says.
“We’ve got a bit comfortable that it’s all solved by overseas agencies. We must solve our own problems and use the expertise we have. [We have to] strive for excellence and contribute cutting edge scientific knowledge in the disease and health space globally.
We are tasked with helping to ensure ongoing access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for New Zealand and Pacific neighbours ,” Graham says of a team that includes the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington.
The development partnership is part of Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo (VAANZ), the Government-funded national Covid-19 vaccine evaluation and development platform.
Graham, who is also VAANZ Programme Director, says the platform is designed to accelerate and support the development of potential domestic and international second generation Covid-19 vaccines, focusing on vaccines that could be manufactured domestically in the future, and emerging coronavirus strains. VAANZ is also about to start a clinical study of the Pfizer vaccine to provide vital insight into our unique New Zealand population.
Graham says VAANZ is committed to building New Zealand’s capability in vaccine development and production to ensure New Zealand is prepared for future pandemics.
“We’ve got a bit comfortable that it’s all solved by overseas agencies. We must solve our own problems and use the expertise we have.
[We have to] strive for excellence and contribute cutting edge scientific knowledge in the disease and health space globally."
Covid-19 aside, the Institute’s dedicated scientists research better, gentler ways of treating infectious diseases, cancers, gut problems, asthma, allergy, and overall brain health.
“We think the immune system can be harnessed to do a lot of good and we are doing some really exciting science around tweaking it to improve our health,” explains Graham.
Immunology is the team’s main lens they use to study these conditions.
“Immunology is one of the new disciplines of health. It’s providing a lot of innovative new solutions for cancer, brain health, chronic inflammatory diseases, which are widespread in first world countries.”
Approximately half of the Institute’s scientists focus on cancer research, including blood, skin and breast cancer.
This team is currently in a phase one clinical trial for the Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell (CAR T-cell) therapy – a revolutionary new cancer treatment, which genetically modifies the patient’s own immune cells to identity and kill cancer. It’s the first time the therapy has been delivered in New Zealand.
The trial is for a type of lymphoma, but the Institute sees this as just the start. It expects this to be the first of many CAR T-cell trials in the country and it is undertaking parallel research focused on improving the therapies by extending them to other cancers.
It wants to accelerate the adoption of CART T-cell therapies in New Zealand as a standard of care for those most likely to benefit from it.
The Institute also looks at asthma and allergies, alongside chronic inflammatory diseases like inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease, which are diseases that are the result of an overactive immune system.
“It’s a huge issue in our world. We think it’s a part of a modern lifestyle, and we’re looking at innovative ways to try and correct the immune response – to dampen it down.”
Graham’s team is currently working on the therapeutic potential of hookworms, referring back to lifestyles 100 years ago, before anyone suffered from gut issues.
“We think the worms modify the immune system in the gut and stop a lot of these chronic inflammatory diseases like Crohn’s and IBS. Food, nutrition and lifestyle have got a lot to answer for,” he says.
The Institute is also investigating the link between the immune system and brain health, with an established research programme into multiple sclerosis and an interest in degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
None of the various research projects conducted by the Malaghan Institute would be possible without monetary funding from the wider community.
“As a charity, we have received a lot of generous support over the years from people who really care about the community and want to see something created for future generations.”
While the concept of a Wellington-based, independent medical research institute was first proposed in the 1960s, it was pushed along by one particular relationship. The founder of Tip Top Ice-Cream, Len Malaghan, was diagnosed with cancer at age 56. His wife Ann established a medical research trust at the time, gifting shares in their company to what would later be named the Malaghan Institute in their honour. The family is still involved with the Malaghan Institute today.
Crombie Lockwood’s Wellington team also has an ongoing relationship with the Institute, formed in response to a personal connection.
“In 2011, former Wellington Branch Director, Brett Gray, developed an aggressive form of cancer and sadly passed away,” explains Crombie Lockwood Wellington Regional Branch Director, Peter Murphy.
“Every few years, we hold a charity golf day in his memory and the Malaghan Institute is a perfect fit for our community fundraising efforts.
“This event gives us all the opportunity to take a moment to remember our great friend, and engage with our clients, suppliers and staff. Fundraising over the years has exceeded $50,000 and we know that our contribution is warmly received and invested into an incredible organisation.”
“Crombie Lockwood has made a significant contribution to the Institute over many years,” Graham concludes.
“As well as being trusted advisers, providing quality insurance advice for our somewhat unique needs, they are long-term, generous supporters of our research and are very community focused. We’re very grateful to have Crombie Lockwood as part of our team.”