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Source: University of Waikato

A new summer research scholarship at the University of Waikato for promising young Māori researchers is bearing fruit with the discovery of potential new ways to treat antibiotic resistant bugs.

Nursing graduate Jessie Mellsop-Kupe, of Ngāti Maniapoto,  has just completed the 10-week summer research scholarship programme, a joint initiative between the University and Maniapoto Māori Trust Board (MMTB).

Her research, supervised by Dr William Kelton in collaboration with Dr Joanna Hicks, focused on creating antibodies within cells that could potentially clear bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It is a significant development with New Zealand’s antibiotic use amongst the highest in the OECD and antibiotic resistance threatening our ability to treat common diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gonorrhoea.

Jessie’s research focused on creating antibodies within cells that would target gonorrhoea, a disease that affects around 145 in every 100,000 New Zealanders.

“It is applied research in its early stage, but it is showing very promising signs,” says Dr Kelton.

As the first recipient of the scholarship, which is open to two students every year, Jessie says it has been an eye-opening experience and one she is honoured to have been involved with.

“It has helped inspire me to do more study and provided direction on where I want to go and what I want to do. I’ve been able to take a lot of what I’m learning and use it at mahi” says Jessie.

She has now enrolled for her Master of Health Science at Waikato with a focus on Māori health and wants to complete this alongside papers in social and political science as well.

“I want to help address a lot of the things that I have experienced not only working as a registered nurse but also just as someone who grew up Māori in New Zealand. I want to be someone I wished I had seen when I was younger and inspire our Rangatahi to do the same” says Jessie.

The scholarship has been facilitated with the help of kaumātua Mana Forbes, who has links to Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Arawa (Ngāti Pikiao), and Taranaki Iwi (Ngā Mahanga). Mr Forbes is a founding shareholder and past chairman of Waikato-based biotech Ruakura Technologies Ltd that is working to develop anti-Covid-19 antibody technology, in conjunction with Dr Kelton and Dr Adele Williamson at the University.

“The scholarship is an avenue for young people from Ngāti Maniapoto, and hopefully eventually further afield, to get involved at the cutting edge of research happening at the University,” says Mr Forbes.

“We’re wanting to grow our young people in this arena and make the impact intergenerational. We see people like Jessie taking their experiences back to their communities,” says Mr Forbes.

“Māori are well represented in teaching, social science and law, but we don’t have enough encouragement and development in health science and maths, which are growing areas for Māori,” Mr Forbes says.

MMTB Chief Executive, Amber-lee Elliott says it has been a privilege to support such a significant piece of work.

“This opportunity has been incredibly central in realising the aspirations of Jessie and showcases the importance of health sciences to our people. With her efforts, she has potentially opened the door and minds for other Ngāti Maniapoto to follow in future,” says Ms Elliott.

“It is very much a joint learning experience. I have learned just as much from Jessie being here and it’s also helping us to weave mātauranga Māori into our everyday research,” says Dr Kelton.