Published by: Stuff
Author: Georgia-May Gilbertson
A town on the east coast of New Zealand is possibly one of the last places you’d expect to find a medical research facility set to change the lives of many.
Mātai, a seven-month-old, non-profit research facility, is based in the heart of Gisborne, and is using expert brains and top-notch technology to seek more information on heart disease, brain trauma, mental illness and cancer.
Mātai, meaning ‘to investigate or examine’, will do so through medical imaging, using new and advanced software, post-processing and artificial intelligence.
The centre has already taken its first big step, developing a partnership with multinational corporation GE Healthcare.
Regional research leader at GE Healthcare Tim O’Meara said he knew they were working in an area with significant healthcare challenges.
“One of the things we’re really excited about is the impact this technology will have on mental health. We’ll be researching if we can pick up different forms of depression, or depression that’s a result of different pathways in the brain,” he said.
“We want to do this by being world-class, not improving things a little, but world-class diagnostic capabilities and treatment monitoring to Gisborne. It’s incredibly exciting for us.
Mātai creator, Dr Samantha Holdsworth, medical physicist and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland, returned home to Gisborne with the goal of making a difference in the community.
Mātai was able to be established due to $6 million from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund, along with Eastland Community Trust.
The Mātai journey started five years ago when Holdsworth, who was working in the USA, decided Gisborne needed its own research institute.
Holdsworth said Gisborne was very high on the list for chronic illnesses and metabolic diseases.
“We felt like we needed to provide something different, a platform for medical research using high-end technology that’s not just going to help people here, but also provide a platform to where we can inspire young people to join this kind of profession, not just primary industries.”
Chief operating officer Leigh Potter has spent the last 20 years in radiology and joined Holdsworth in her vision to help people.
“My heart was pulled into it because I’d spent many years watching sick people walk through the front doors of the hospital and using imaging to diagnose these illnesses we saw many cases that could have been avoided if they had been picked up earlier.
“We’ve got a nice small community to be able to do this research and it will be a lot easier to manage. But more importantly we’re doing research in an area which needs it most.”
Potter said “many factors” contributed to some of Gisborne’s poor health statistics.
“We have a high deprivation group here, a lot of research has shown for many years that it comes with health disparities and not getting access to health needs as quickly as they could in a larger centre like Auckland Hospital.”
Potter was hoping the Mātai team would grow from four members to nine by September.
“We might have a small team, but we’ve got a lot of support from Auckland University, and we’re working with teams all over the world who want to get behind this research.”
“Samantha and I ended up in a position where we’ve had such a fantastic offer from two vendors who were not only offering us an MRI machine, but an onsite scientist who will build and develop our business,” Potter said.
“They’ll keep us connected nationally and globally. We’ve just ended up with something so incredible.”
Holdsworth said a sense of “helping each other” came across strongly in the partnership.
“GE wanted to help the community out this way too, so it came across as a hand-holding process.”
O’Meara said there were some talented people at Mātai and
said the MRI machine was “on its way” and would be operational in Gisborne by September.
“They’re somewhere between $2-3m, so this is a really significant investment and what Mātai has been able to do is get a machine that’s really high in spec. We want to see our machine used by some great minds and that’s exactly what Mātai has.
O’Meara said the assistance from the advanced technology meant appropriate patients would get the right treatments for their illnesses.
“Cardiovascular disease is still a major killer in our societies, and throw in issues like obesity and pre-existing conditions, then there’re enormous opportunities for not only how one patient can be treated, but entire communities.
“The equipment is only part of this, it’s the team that works with it, which gives it the ability to make a difference.
“The days of making machines with better specs are long gone. We want to make sure that we are making a difference.”