11 Nov 2015

Science's brightest lights honoured

7:57 am on 11 November 2015

A researcher who has made significant breakthroughs in the treatment of osteoporosis was among those recognised by the Royal Society of New Zealand last night.

Distinguished professor Ian Reid.

Distinguished professor Ian Reid. Photo: RNZ / Mohamed Hassan

The night's most prestigious award, the Rutherford Medal, was awarded to University of Auckland researcher and distinguished professor Ian Reid.

Over the last 30 years, Professor Reid has worked in the area of osteoporosis and developed drugs to help increase bone density and reduce fracture risk.

He was also awarded the Liley Medal, for his work debunking theories about the effects of vitamin D supplements on bone disorders, which proved the once thought essential treatment was ineffective.

He said musculoskeletal problems had been steadily growing as the population aged.

"We are not dying at the same rates as we used to from heart disease and cancer, and so therefore people are living into their 80s and 90s much more commonly than they used to.

"There is this enormous load of morbidity from bone disease in the form of osteoporosis, and joint disease mainly in the form of osteoarthritis, but also gout in this country."

Prof Reid's medal was one of 13 awarded at the dinner in Auckland last night for research ranging from bone disease and sudden infant death to indigenous rights.

When Valery Feigin's father died from a stroke 35 years ago, the AUT professor decided it would become his life's work to prevent it.

Two years ago, he launched a non-for-profit mobile phone app allowing people to identify their risk factors and estimate their chances of having a stroke in the next five to 10 years.

That app is now being translated into 20 languages in 160 countries.

"The most difficult part is to change the mindset of people," he said.

"It's much easier to focus on high-risk people, to give some pills, but these people constitute a tiny proportion."

"80 percent of strokes and heart attacks come from people with low-to-moderate risks."

Another person recognised at the dinner was professor Edwin Mitchell.

In the late 1980s, he led a team of researchers looking into sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

"SIDS, or actually often in that time it was called 'cot death', was a disease that was unpredictable and unpreventable, those were the two terms that people used."

Since then, Mr Mitchell's public awareness programme into risks such as laying babies on their tummies is credited with saving the lives of 3000 infants.

"We've turned that completely on its head."

He received the Beaven Medal.

It was not all science at the awards last night.

Another winner was indigenous researcher Professor Margaret Mutu, who was recognised for her contribution to Maori rights, linguistics and constitutional transformation.

The Prime Minister's Science Prizes, totalling $1 million, will be announced this afternoon.