This week’s speaker was Sir Jerry Mateparae, a distinguished New Zealander who is accustomed to talking and answering questions about his career as a soldier, diplomat, and of course, Governor-General.
On this occasion he was relieved, he said, to tell us about his latest role. He is chair of the Board of one of the government’s National Science Challenges, which was set up in 2014 with funding guaranteed for ten years. The Challenges are mission-led, employ the best available research teams, embrace Vision Matauranga, and encourage stakeholders to set the research agendas.
Sir Jerry chairs one of the three health-related Challenges, called ‘Healthier Lives’. This one focuses on the health issues in the adult population which place the heaviest burden on the system. There are four prominent diseases under special study: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Interestingly, the bulk of work is not laboratory-based biomedical research - the search for ‘cures’ - but deals more with the detection, assessment, and management of diseases out in the community.
This is going well, and Sir Jerry gave some examples. Diabetes can be better controlled via ‘health navigators’ who will guide sufferers into better lifestyles. A tool has been developed to help GPs predict who is most at risk from cardiovascular events. CCDna testing of blood samples can detect cancers at low cost, and indicate whether tumours are growing or shrinking.
The health status of Maori and Pasifika populations is relatively poor, and ‘Healthier Lives’ is looking at issues around equitable access to health services which, as Bill McAulay noted, has become evident in the current pandemic.
Finally, Sir Jerry paid tribute to the dedicated and highly skilled scientists involved in the Healthier Lives challenge.