8 Nov 2018

Virtual pregnancy, loot boxes and dark web among research granted funding

7:15 am on 8 November 2018

Cutting edge cyber and electronic technology is leading the way in this year's Marsden Fund announcements.

Illustration of fetus.

Photo: 123RF

The Royal Society Te Apārangi on behalf of the government has this year allocated $85.6 million to 136 three-year long research projects.

Research involving virtual pregnancy, gaming "loot boxes", the dark web and drones to study volcanic gases, all won significant grants through the Marsden Fund.

World-first's virtual pregnancy to study blood flow to the placenta

Bioengineer Alys Clark, from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and Jo James, from the School of Medicine at the University of Auckland, will work on an international research project to study how changes in the blood flow affect a mother's ability to nourish her baby.

This will be done through a virtual pregnancy that will feed back information to the researchers.

The research has been given the top Marsden Funding of $954,000.

Dr Clark said when the baby got to the uterus in early pregnancy, it had to get a supply of nutrients from the cells in the placenta, that invade into the uterus, transforming the blood vessels.

"There is quite a strong link between how well the baby develops and how well that process happens," she said.

Dr Clark said pregnancy was a really difficult time to observe, so studying a pregnancy virtually was ideal.

"If somebody who isn't pregnant has tests they may have a CT scan, but there's radiation associated with that, which you don't want pregnant women to have, so there's only so much we can see during pregnancy," she said.

A pregnant woman usually went for an ultrasound in the early stages and again at 20 weeks, but so much happened in between that time, Dr Clark said.

"So what we can do with a virtual pregnancy is take the things we can see and take all the different bits of data from different clinical disciplines and put it all together," she said.

With this technology it is hoped it will be easier to detect foetal growth restriction sooner and improve treatments.

She said this same technology was being used overseas to create other virtual organs in the body, to study cardiac and lung disease.

Studying the ring of fire with old and new technology

A New Zealand researcher is going to travel around the ring of fire in a waka, to study volcanos with drones.

Victoria University of Wellington's Ian Schipper and Yves Moussallam from France's Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, have been given $928,000 in this year's Marsden Fund for the ambitious project.

The first sailing will be from Port Villa, by the end of the year.

Dr Schipper said it was estimated one-third of all volcanic gases in the earth's atmosphere came from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

However, satellite data can't pick up all the gases and access to the volcanos can be difficult.

"We realised that Māori and Polynesian seafarers have had the answer to this problem for millennia, so we're merging our modern analytical technology with traditional seafaring to address this global issue," he said.

From the research waka, specially modified drones will take the state-of-the-art measuring equipment right into the volcanic plumes.

Dr Schipper said the research would help scientists understand the impact these volcanoes were having on the atmosphere.

The impacts of gambling-type features and gaming

New Zealand has the most video game developers per capita in the world, but not enough is known about what features such at "loot boxes" have on video gamers.

Aaron Drummond from Massey University and a team of researchers will be exploring what the possible psychological and financial risks these gambling-type features pose.

More games include loot boxes, which can be bought with real-world money, so gamers can obtain items that could affect gameplay.

There are concerns these features can produce the same habits seen with conventional gambling.

The researchers will use online surveys of gamers alongside experimental psychology studies to examine how these reward systems affect player behaviour.

The research has been given a $300,000 grant and will provide valuable data in an industry that will increasingly affect our economy and society in the future.

New Zealand's drug trade and the dark web

Looking at the largest "darknet" sites, Massey University associate professor Chris Wilkins will investigate the role the darknet is having on our country's illegal drug supply.

With a grant of $863,000, Prof Wilkins and his team will use web-crawlers to estimate the volume of sales and prices in New Zealand for major drugs.

They will also analyse wastewater to assess the total quantity of each drug type consumed in New Zealand.

The research is expected to give insight, otherwise unobtainable through surveys alone.

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