Victoria researcher wins funding for revolutionary research

A Victoria University of Wellington biology researcher has been awarded over $1 million dollars in funding for a revolutionary research project that will “rewrite the textbooks” and could change the way we treat cellular diseases such as brain cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Melanie McConnell

Dr Melanie McConnell says she was nearly speechless when Health Research Council of New Zealand announced it will provide $1,036,746 to fund her three-year project.

“It is very, very exciting. It secures funding to get a team of people working on my research, and allows them to put their heads down and get on with it. Without the grant, the project wouldn’t happen,” she says.

Dr McConnell says the project is based on a discovery made five years ago during her time at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, which is based at Victoria University, and was further developed during her current post at Victoria.  

The project centres on the discovery that mitochondria can move between cells. 

“It’s a new observation that goes against all the dogma in the textbooks. At first, people refused to accept our data. We’ve always assumed mitochondria have to renew themselves within the cell, but the research conducted at Malaghan with Professor Mike Berridge shows that mitochondria can transfer between cells.

“This is potentially a double-edged sword. Cells that are injured in neurodegenerative diseases could use mitochondrial transfer to survive, but cancer cells could also use this process to resist treatment,” she says.  

The outcome of her research could change how we treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease, where injured brain cells die, and also brain cancers where injured cells are actively growing and resist attempts to kill them. 

Dr McConnell will lead the project’s team of five throughout the three-year research period.

“This is only the first step of what could be a 15-year project. Our ultimate goal is to hack the body’s mitochondrial transfer system to alter cell survival in disease.”