Liggins Institute

Applications to agriculture and industry

The biology of growth and development is as relevant to the production of farm animals as to human health. Liggins research discoveries are also finding new applications in the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Applications in agriculture

In a collaborative research programme scientists from the Liggins Institute and New Zealand’s largest CRI AgResearch are exploring fundamental aspects of mammalian biology, such as the way the environment during early development determines how nutrients will be partitioned between growth and energy production throughout life. A fetus, human or animal, that has poor nutrition before birth may predict that it will be born into a world where food is scarce. It therefore sets its metabolism to store energy as fat rather than build muscle, thus setting up a tendency towards obesity in humans and carcass fatness in animals.

Improving our knowledge of these early life processes will give us the capacity to manipulate parameters, such as nutrition during pregnancy, to influence the activity settings of the genes that children and animals are born with.
The programme aims to develop better animal feeds, animal welfare products and practices and smart ways of handling and processing food products. In turn this will lead to a range of pastoral based foods with human health benefits.

The ultimate goal is to commercialise resulting research data, in turn benefitting local industry and enhancing economic returns.


Applications for nutrition and food

Liggins research has led to better understanding of the biological process known as developmental programming. Through this process factors in an organism’s or individual’s early life environment determine its pathway of development, its health and body composition as an adult. One of the most important of these environmental factors is maternal nutrition.

Developmental programming operates through epigenetic control of gene activity. Our scientists and collaborators have been able to measure chemical changes (methylation) in the promoter region of key genes at the time of birth and correlate them with the likelihood of developing particular diseases later in life. This discovery shows that it is now possible to measure the risk of developing diseases that are linked to adverse developmental programming. It opens the way for the development of a new generation of predictive diagnostic tests known as prognostics.

We have shown, using experimental models, that it is possible to reverse undesirable developmental programming during the early postnatal period. Our current focus is to develop intervention strategies using nutrition to treat at-risk babies and infants. We are investigating formulations with mixtures of macro and micro nutrients that are customised to meet the particular nutritional needs of the different target groups.

Recent progress in our nutritional research programme has identified panels of bioactive natural products that function at the epigenetic level to alter developmental programming.


Pharmaceutical applications

Intellectual property resulting from research at the Liggins Institute has been or is being further developed into commercial applications by spin out biotechnology companies Neuren Pharmaceuticals Ltd and Saratan Therapeutics Ltd. These include potential treatments for brain injury and neurodegeneration and cancer therapeutic targets.

All commercial contracts and relationships are managed through Auckland Uniservices Ltd.