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Issue 91, December 2005

Pioneer Delighted at 'Oscar for Science'

by Anne Beston

A pioneering brain scientist said he felt he had won the "Oscar for science" after being awarded the Liley Medal in this year's Royal Society of New Zealand honours.

Richard Faull used tissue samples to prove diseased
brains fight back. Picture / Derek Flynn
The medal, for outstanding research, was awarded to Professor Richard Faull, of the Auckland University Medical School, at the society's annual dinner in Wellington last night.

It was "completely unexpected", the 60-year-old said.

"It's recognising that in brain research we're not just making a difference in New Zealand, but in the world and that's what it's all about."

In the past five years, Professor Faull and his team discovered that even diseased brains attempted to repair damage by producing new cells to replace dying ones.

The research built on a discovery in 1998 by scientists in the United States who used a chemical "marker" to show normal brains produced new cells. It it had previously been assumed brain size was determined by the age of about 15 years.

Using a human "brain bank", donated by the families of Huntington's disease patients, Professor Faull used the same technique to discover the diseased brain fought back by producing even more cells.

Discovering this process in diseased brains was a breakthrough, offering hope to the hundreds of New Zealanders who die of brain disease each year. "We thought we should see it enhanced in people who have large numbers of cells dying and that's exactly what we found," he said.

"When I first told people they said, 'load of rubbish'. That was about five years ago, so it's taken that long to prove it."

The next stage of the research is to find a way to turn critical brain cells on faster by discovering what makes brain cells divide and form particular cells.

The other puzzle is to map the pathways of new brain cells within the brain.

New cells travel these "motorways" to replace dead cells.

"We have got to the top of one mountain and now we see more before us and that's the challenge of life. That's the challenge of science."

This year's Rutherford Medal went to Victoria University physicist Professor Paul Callaghan.

The Pickering Medal for excellence in applied technology went to Professor John Boys, of Auckland University. Ten scientists were elected Fellows of the Society.

Acknowledgment: The New Zealand Herald 17 November 2005 Copyright 2005, APN Holdings NZ Ltd

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