Optometry & Vision Science professor awarded New Zealand's top scientific prize

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Professor Ben Thompson The School of Optometry & Vision Science's Professor Ben Thompson has been named a winner of New Zealand’s Te Pūiaki Putaiao Matua a Te Pirimia Science Prize - the country’s top award for scientific discoveries that have had a significant economic, health, social and/or environmental impact around the world.

Professor Thompson, also recently named a 2022 University Chair, is part of the award-winning inter-disciplinary neonatal glucose studies research team out of the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute. Over the past 20 years, this team’s research has been central in developing new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent blood sugar imbalance in babies. Their research into neonatal hypoglycemia has changed practice around the world, saving millions of health-care dollars and improving the lives of mothers and babies worldwide. 

Key discoveries have included the use of dextrose (sugar) gel immediately after birth, which is now recommended internationally as a first-line treatment for low blood sugar. Other significant contributions have included the development of Gluco-Light, a non-invasive glucose monitoring device that reduces the need for repeated heel-prick tests and a new evidence-based method for testing vision in young children with hypoglycemia.

Professor Thompson said their research team was inspired to do this research because the problem of understanding and treating blood sugar in babies has been around for decades. “Almost a third of all babies are born at risk of having low blood sugar. It is a very common problem that, without a solution, could lead to irreversible brain injury and other complications later in life.”

Tackling such a broad range of questions over the past 20 years of study – including what low blood sugar does to a child’s vision and an understanding of what they see – has required a broad range of skills in the team, says Thompson.

“Our research team has needed specialties like bioengineering, psychology, education and more in order to be successful,” Thompson said. “It’s been really rewarding to be able to offer my background in vision science to the overall expertise of such a talented team.”

Presented by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the May 31st ceremony, the team will receive a $500,000 prize that will allow researchers to keep progressing in their work, including their ongoing work to develop a national guideline in New Zealand to support the management of babies at risk of hypoglycemia.

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