Charities old and new have found their niche in New Zealand’s scientific community. Three independent institutes, which all owe their existence to a visionary founder or generous benefactor, attract millions of dollars in government funding each year. They say they fill a valuable gap in scientific research. Gisborne’s brand-new Mātai Institute is creating a campus-based on cutting-edge MRI whole-body research. It aims to draw in experts from around the earth while inspiring and nurturing young local talent. Further south, Nelson’s mighty Cawthron Institute is NZ’s largest independent research organisation and entering its second century. And Wellington’s Malaghan Institute is about to burst out of the laboratory to carry out clinical trials on new therapies training the body’s own cells to attack cancer.
Just two years old, the Mātai Institute in Gisborne has big plans to be a world-leading research centre. It was set up by local-born Dr Samantha Holdsworth, after a 16-year career overseas in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) research. The centrepiece of the institute’s research is its high-definition MRI scanner.
Tesla is a unit of magnetic field strength and Mātai ‘s machine is a “3-Tesla”, compared with the 1.5-Tesla still common in clinical use. The institute was founded in 2019 at Gisborne Hospital with the help of a $6 million grant from the Provincial Growth Fund, along with private philanthropic support. In the June 2021 financial year, its biggest source of funding was $1.8m from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) Public Good Fund, followed by $280,000 from the J N Williams Memorial Trust, and $60,000 in general donations. Holdsworth, Mātai’s chief executive and director of research, studied physics at Canterbury University, then moved on to medical physics and a doctorate in MRI at the University of Queensland. From there she spent 11 years at Stanford University School of Medicine working on new MRI methods for the early detection of diseases. But eventually, the pull of home was stronger, she says.
“It was time to bring that knowledge and the network back to a region which I felt could really benefit from this area.” The institute hopes to develop a new scientific community with the MRI machine as its nucleus. In June, it broke ground on a new campus in central Gisborne. The initial $5m cost includes $3.3m from the Lottery Significant Projects Fund and funding from the Kānoa-Regional Economic Development and Investment Unit. The first building is expected to take a year to complete with further stages added as funding is raised. A lean operation Holdsworth says there’s a queue of research specialists wanting to move to Gisborne from NZ and abroad. The main limit is the institute’s need for a lean operation. It forges links with organisations such as Stanford and the University of California, but the focus is also local, with educational programmes and scholarships in Gisborne-Tairāwhiti, Holdsworth says. “It’s about growing that local talent while also linking people up internationally. A big goal of what we’re doing is trying to train local talent from the ground up,” she says.
Research into head trauma is just one example of Mātai’s simultaneously local and global focus. The institute has gone on the sports field as part of a multi-disciplinary study into head trauma. Gisborne rugby players aged from 16 to 18 wore mouthguards fitted with motion sensors and had brain scans before, during and after the sporting season. Holdsworth says they’re trying to come up with models of how the brain responds to impacts.
“The dream is to see if we can determine if a person can play on, or goes off the field. It’s applicable to all types of concussion.” Another project is the Tairāwhiti child wellbeing study, where local children are being scanned over the years to create models of normal and abnormal development. But it also helps to engage children in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), Holdsworth says. “We’ve done a pilot of 30 children and the great thing about it is that it’s a really neat way of engaging children and STEM. So, they get to experience the scanning and see inside their own body, the brain and the heart.”
Chief operating officer Leigh Potter says the institute is looking to commercialise its research. For now, that’s limited to clinical MRI services which brought in $21,000 in the 2021 financial year.