Dr Melanie Tomintz, a University of Canterbury researcher, has been awarded a $150,000 explorer grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to create a multi-sensory virtual reality environment to study the reactions of e-cigarette and tobacco smokers.

“A radical shift in thinking needs to be introduced to understand underlying causes of people’s subconscious behaviour,” said Tomintz. She said currently health data is mainly collected by using surveys which could lead to bias and inaccurate representations of people’s actual behaviour.

Her exploratory study aims to measure people’s behavioural and psychophysiological reactions when exposed to virtual stimuli, such as tobacco, different flavours of e-cigarette liquids, and other conditions within a virtual world.

She hoped the newly-collected behavioural data could be used to help the develop innovative and personalised prevention and cessation support for smokers and – in future –help plan healthier environments.

Tomintz has access to an existing virtual reality (VR) lab which includes two multisensory VR cage prototypes for multimodal feedback. But she needed to add additional technology to expose study participants to stimuli like tobacco smoke and e-liquid flavours.  The enhanced lab could then also be used to test people’s reactions to proposed future policies or treatments in areas like smoking cessation.

Health Research Council chief executive, Professor Kath McPherson said the explorer grant scheme seeks to attract and fund transformative research ideas with the potential for major impact on healthcare.

A total of 10 explorer grants were announced in late March worth a combined value of $1.5 million. They cover a range of health disciplines and include an idea to use smallpox proteins to treat human inflammation, and the development of an all-new test for diagnosing prostate cancer. A full list of the 2018 explorer grant recipients can be read below and more information on their projects can be viewed here (you need to filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Explorer Grants’ and ‘2018’ to view the list).

2018 Explorer Grant recipients

Dr Chris Baldi, University of Otago, Dunedin

A unique cellular mechanism for diabetic heart disease?

24 months, $150,000

Dr Paul Harris, University of Auckland

Pinpointing prostate cancer: A paradigm shift in diagnosis

24 months, $150,000

Gayl Humphrey, University of Auckland

EngageBOT: Exploring chatbots for supporting patient engagement

24 months, $150,000

Professor Kurt Krause, University of Otago, Dunedin

Using smallpox proteins to treat human inflammation

24 months, $150,000

Dr Samantha Marsh, University of Auckland

‘‘This is not an intervention, it’s a movement!’: reducing screen time in teens

24 months, $150,000

Professor Neil McNaughton, University of Otago, Dunedin

Developing and validating a novel site for mobile and unobtrusive EEG recording

24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Anthony Phillips, University of Auckland

Is there a ‘fourth axis’ of vesicular communication?

24 months, $150,000

Dr Melanie Tomintz, University of Canterbury

Towards personalised digital health services for preventable health conditions

24 months, $150,000

Dr Ehsan Vaghefi, University of Auckland

Ocular laser bio-meter, fast and cheap early diagnosis of vision impairment

24 months, $150,000

Dr Paul Young, University of Auckland

A universal scaffold for multivalent vaccine development

24 months, $150,000

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