Top research fellowship awarded to Liggins Research Director

08 November 2007

The Liggins Institute’s Research Director Professor Murray Mitchell is one of four leading New Zealand scientists to be awarded a 2007 James Cook Fellowship.

Widely regarded as New Zealand’s most prestigious science and technology award, the Fellowships are funded by the New Zealand Government and administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The highly competitive Fellowships allow their recipients to spend two years focussing on research that is expected to make a significant contribution to New Zealand’s knowledge base.

Professor Mitchell is an international expert in the hormonal mechanisms that regulate pregnancy and labour. He will use his time as a James Cook Fellow to concentrate on investigating how environmental factors can modify the actions of key genes in the fetus and placenta to influence not only the course of a pregnancy but the baby’s health as an adult.

"We shall be taking a coordinated and integrated approach to understanding how spontaneous and environmentally induced changes affect the pathways that control fetal development, particularly at the critical points of implantation and birth," says Prof Mitchell. "We know that these developmental changes can be passed on through future generations affecting the cardiovascular, immune and neural systems.

"Our long-term goal is to find new ways to prevent, and treat the key diseases of pregnancy and reduce the risk factors that lead to adult disease."

The science of how inherited genes can be permanently switched on and off as a result of environmental influences is known as epigenetics. It is a field of research where the Liggins Institute and the National Research Centre for Growth and Development, of which Prof Mitchell is the Deputy Director, are acknowledged international leaders. For instance, they have shown that babies that are poorly nourished in the womb may be born prematurely and are at risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease in later life.

Prof Mitchell has a DSc from Liverpool University and a DPhil from the University of Oxford. He has held positions at the Universities of Oxford, Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, University of California San Diego, University of Utah and latterly was Head of the Department of Pharmacology and then Associate Dean of Planning and Deputy Dean the University of Auckland, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and fellowships and in 1999 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Professor Peter Gluckman, Director of the Liggins Institute congratulated Prof Mitchell on the award of the Fellowship. "This is richly deserved," he said. "Murray has made a major contribution to our current understanding of the biology of pregnancy and the mechanisms of birth. The Fellowship gives him the opportunity to use the new technologies and multidisciplinary approaches that we have available at the Liggins to move that knowledge to a new level."

For further information contact:
Pandora Carlyon
Liggins Institute
Phone: +64 9 373 7599 ext 82305