AUT stroke team wins PM’s Science Prize

02 May, 2023
AUT stroke team wins PM’s Science Prize
The team receiving the award from the Minister of Health, and the Minister of Research, Science, and Innovation Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall.

The National Institute for Stroke and Applied Neurosciences (NISAN) team has won the 2022 Prime Minister’s Science Prize - the first ever received by AUT.

The team, led by NISAN’s Director Professor Valery Feigin, received the award from the Minister of Health, and the Minister of Research, Science, and Innovation Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall at a ceremony held at the at Wharewaka Function Centre on May 1st.

According to the selection panel and Chief Executive of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, Paul Atkins, Professor Feigin’s work “combined all the elements of a scientific breakthrough, proof, technology, modelling and commercialisation… [and] the research has had an incredible impact and long-term contribution to health and social outcomes.”

Professor Feigin was awarded the Liley Medal in November 2022 at the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Research Honours.

Putting stroke at the top of mind of prevention

Professor Feigin, who has led NISAN since it’s formation in 2010, says he was honoured to have been found worthy of the illustrious prize.

He notes that the award was a mark of AUT’s Health Sciences’ international reach and an essential recognition that “significant insights in stroke epidemiology and prevention in the context of New Zealand can be influential on the global stage”.

He says the achievement would not have been possible without encouragement from the University and the Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences and the support from his project team, comprising Prof Rita Krishnamurthi, Balakrishnan Nair, and Dr Alexander Merkin, who form part of the current 35-strong NISAN team.

Professor Krishnamurthi, who has been at AUT for 11 years, says she was fortunate to have a major role as a named investigator and coordinator of the world-renowned ARCOS studies.

“The findings from ARCOS made it clear that the stroke burden in New Zealand is large and increasing and that stroke prevention is the key to reducing its burden. Our team considered developing evidence-based digital tools for individuals and health care professionals to do just that.”

One of the digital tools, a mobile app, is called Stroke Riskometer.  It is one of two world-first and internationally recognised digital mass individual stroke awareness and risk prevention tools developed by the team.

The Stroke Riskometer is free to use and is tailored for lay people. It works alongside PreventS-MD, a medical information software for healthcare professionals that is based on the Stroke Riskometer app.

The web app was tested and proved useful for individually tailored motivational primary and secondary stroke prevention in 27 countries and is currently being implemented in New Zealand via MedTech Global and Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand Waitemata. Both tools are owned and copyrighted by AUT Ventures.

The interfaces for both tools have been evolving and improving over the years since creation and have been translated into several languages for international organisations.

Within the first three years, the Stroke Riskometer app was endorsed by major global organisations, including the World Stroke Organization, the World Heart Federation, the European Stroke Organisation, and the World Federation of Neurology.

It remains a free app and is available to 5.3 billion people in their native languages. Professor Feigin says the cross-pollination among several New Zealand universities and international experts is why the apps can be continually optimised.

“We hope to see more health service providers take up these digital solutions for brain health and other non-communicable disease prevention,” says Nair, one of the other team members.

“The risk factors included in the tools are common for heart attacks, diabetes mellitus, dementia, chronic pulmonary and kidney diseases, and cancer, accounting for over 70 percent of deaths from all causes.

“The wish is that the public will also become more aware and enabled with self-management of stroke risk factors through these digital tools and that New Zealanders’ overall health and wellbeing will improve.”

According to Professor Feigin, NISAN has five ongoing collaborative projects on digital tools for stroke and dementia. He hopes that with the $400,000 Prize, the institute’s plan to set up a programme on digital solutions for brain health can come to fruition.

Dr Alexandr Merkin, a psychiatrist and a lecturer in mental health and neuroscience, says digital technologies are increasingly applied in medicine.

“As a science communicator, I believe these technologies will change the landscape of healthcare services. The main direction our team has been working on over the last eight years, utilising these technologies, is primary and secondary stroke prevention in NZ and internationally.

“The New Zealand Prime Minister’s Science Prize for this preventative and other epidemiological work encourages us to continue working in this direction to save lives and improve the health of people in New Zealand and internationally.”

Why stroke?

When asked why advocating for stroke prevention is essential, Professor Feigin says he’s worked as a stroke physician and researcher for almost 40 years.

“My initial interest in stroke was sparked by the unfortunate demise of my father due to a stroke when he was 58. I was a general neurologist at that time. It was then I started to look at the issue of stroke more closely.”

Professor Feigin’s goes beyond Aotearoa too. Not only is the United Nations using the Global Burden of Disease stroke epidemiological data in their health policy documents, but in 2018, the World Health Organization finally agreed to classify stroke as a neurological disorder (rather than a cardiovascular disorder).

“Since 2022, stroke has been placed in ICD-11, and 35 countries use that classification nationally. In two to three years, most countries will likely use the ICD-11. This will ultimately improve funding for advancing stroke care, prevention, and fundamental and applied research for stroke. That’s a big and long-lasting impact.

“It was a seven-year battle well fought by the WHO eight-member stroke advisory group I was honoured to be a part of for this great outcome,” says Professor Feigin.

It’s probably not a surprise he won the battle. According to the Web of Science, was in the top one percent of most cited scientists worldwide across all fields of research in 2018, 2020, 2021 and 2022, and with over 268,000 citations is currently the most cited scientist in New Zealand.

“The most rewarding part of our research is that we can now see its impact in NZ and globally. Publishing papers is one thing, but if you can see that the research you have done can improve the area of your work, it’s priceless.”

“Most recently, we were approached by one of the largest medical companies in the world to use our digital tools for stroke prevention in their medical devices.

“If this comes to pass, with the company’s representation in every country worldwide, it will be so rewarding for our researchers to be recognised by the industry,” Professor Feigin concludes.