Researcher brings genetics expertise home to help Kiwi children

Cure Kids brings leading emerging researcher, Dr Adam O'Neill, home to New Zealand to extend studies helping children suffering intellectual and developmental conditions


Researcher brings genetics expertise home to help Kiwi children

Cure Kids brings a leading emerging researcher home to New Zealand to extend studies helping children suffering intellectual and developmental conditions

Growing up on a Canterbury sheep farm, Dr Adam O’Neill saw first-hand how science can have practical implications for society. His journey then took him from the University of Otago to Munich, where he pioneered the use of stem-cell technology to research the proteins and genes forming networks within brain cells.

Now, with the support of Cure Kids, Dr O’Neill has returned to Otago to put that knowledge into research – armed to help improve the lives of our tamariki with conditions such as intellectual disability, developmental delay and ADHD.

Dr O’Neill works in the university’s Department of Women’s and Children’s Health where, taking skin cells from children with neurodevelopmental conditions, he can “re-programme” them into the affected brain cells. He can then model each child’s unique cellular features to identify clues into their condition’s cause.

The aim is to map the development of a child’s brain condition from its onset to maturity, and ultimately improve diagnosis and management of these conditions.

Dr O’Neill returned to New Zealand late last year having been appointed the inaugural Roy Austin Repatriation Fellow by Cure Kids. The fellowship was set up to assist an early career researcher with an excellent track record in medical or health research to return to New Zealand to further their career.

Between 1 and 3 per cent of New Zealand children are affected by neurodevelopmental disorders. These result in substantial personal, physical, psychological, social and economic costs for individuals, their whānau and the healthcare system.

Such conditions include intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, which affect how people move, think, feel, communicate and behave. Despite intensive genetic investigation, 50-70 per cent of patients with disorders affecting neurodevelopment have no defined genetic diagnosis.

Ultimately, the development of precision diagnostics will inform the diagnosis, prognosis and, for some, the treatment of these children. Dr O’Neill says the Cure Kids funding will be instrumental in getting his research off the ground and running in this country, facilitating exposure and networks with other researchers in New Zealand.

In addition to the repatriation fellowship, Cure Kids recently announced a further $1million in funding to critical child health research – the largest amount committed in a single round throughout its history, which stretches back to 1971.

On top of the $10 million already invested, the additional $1million marks a remarkable investment in research projects in the North and South islands, with more significant support to follow throughout the year.

This funding is a considerable investment into critical areas of child health research such as stillbirth, perinatal health, rheumatic heart disease, mental health, amblyopia, rare diseases, and child cancer.

Cure Kids’ CEO Frances Benge says since Rotary established Cure Kids in 1971, the charity has invested more than $45 million in New Zealand research. This has helped to shape and vastly improve the lives of children living with serious diseases and facilitate how health conditions are diagnosed and treated.

“We’re proud of this legacy and are looking forward to the progress 2020 will bring in child health as we invest a further $1 million into some of New Zealand’s brightest health researchers.”

Frances Benge says it’s only because of generous donations that Cure Kids can fund high-impact child health research. She urges New Zealanders who can afford to, to support Cure Kids’ vision of healthier children, with brighter futures by providing the funding that promising young researchers such as Dr Adam O’Neill so desperately need.


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