Food industry technology may help critically ill patients

University of Auckland surgical researcher Dr Anthony Phillips has just received a $150,000 Explorer Grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to develop a device to perform routine oxidative stress measurements in patients for the first time.

The device uses technology called cyclic voltammetry that is widely used in the antioxidant food industry, but which has never been used for clinical use in acute and critically ill patients.

Oxidative stress is a universal feature of vital organ dysfunction and failure during acute and critical illness. It occurs when pro-oxidants overwhelm antioxidant defences.

Dr Phillips says there is currently no easy bedside test for measuring oxidative stress.

“It is widely recognised that a simple, real-time, point-of-care measurement of oxidative stress could be of significant benefit in assessing and managing acute and critically ill patients,” says Dr Phillips.

“Cyclic voltammetry is a remarkably straightforward technique. It uses two electrodes to measure the key components of blood total antioxidant status in one simple measurement cycle that takes only a few minutes.”

As the technology is simple and has a strong scientific foundation, Dr Phillips says it offers a short path from development to implementation, and “a global opportunity for New Zealand to lead innovation in patient management strategies”.

Dr Phillips is one of three University of Auckland researchers to receive a HRC Explorer Grant in 2015, each worth $150,000.

Another University of Auckland researcher, Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, a research fellow in global health and food policy, will use her 2015 Explorer Grant to develop and test approaches for engaging and empowering New Zealanders to take actions that will make their food and physical activity environments healthier.

This includes crowdsourcing data with a smartphone application on the nutritional quality of foods in schools.

“Unhealthy diets have overtaken tobacco use as the major risk factor for disease in New Zealand,” says Dr Vandevijvere. “This project will support public awareness and improved actions at the local level to reduce childhood obesity.”

An Explorer grant was also awarded to Dr Justin O’Sullivan for his research that will test a new way of understanding the activation of cells that migrate through the body to maintain health – or cause diseases such as cancer.

His project summary says that DNA folding affects how genes are turned on and off. Despite wide-spread acceptance that this folding is dynamic, little is known about how processes that change cell shape (e.g. migration across membranes) affect genome organization and cell programming.

“We hypothesize that changes to cell shape during migration across membranes result in stable changes to the genome organization that affect how the genes are turned on or off,” he says. “We will use a novel interdisciplinary approach to explore how cell migration affects cell programming.”

Results from this research will form the basis for a unifying theory for cell activation that includes DNA folding, epigenetics, and gene regulation. This work is especially relevant for understanding how immune system and cancer cells are activated when they move across membranes.

It is also important for musculoskeletal and vascular cells that exhibit changes in elasticity that are associated with the onset and development of chronic diseases.

To view lay summaries of the HRC Explorer Grant 2015 recipients’ projects, go to and filter for ‘Researcher initiated proposals’, ‘Explorer Grants’, ‘2015’.

University of Auckland