Asthma and allergy researchers have installed a pollen trap on the Auckland Museum roof to provide current data on allergenic pollen in the air.
The green metallic pollen trap – looking like a small spacecraft with a large sail – has been installed to help researchers gather near-real-time data on the pollen and spores that can trigger a range of allergic reactions.
Currently, public information is modelled on trends detected decades ago and the likelihood of certain types of pollen being in the air, said pharmacist and asthma researcher at Waipapa Taumata Rau, the University of Auckland, Dr Amy Chan.
“We simply don’t have current – or recent – data that tells us about how these pollen triggers may have changed in recent decades in response to changes in climate, land use and vegetation patterns,” says Dr Chan.
“So there’s a real need to look at pollen and how this relates to health. This is the first time in 35 years we’ve been able to do it using pollen capture, which is why it’s really exciting.”
The last time pollen was trapped and analysed in Auckland and across New Zealand generally was in 1988, when a member of the current research team, palynologist Professor Rewi Newnham – now based at Victoria University in Wellington – was carrying out his doctoral research with Dr David Fountain.
Dr Chan and Dr Stuti Misra, also of the University of Auckland, are leading the initiative to look at pollen and allergic disease. The project, funded by Auckland Medical Research Foundation, Health Research Council and Life AI Corp, will follow 300 asthma patients for six months to see whether there are correlations between their asthma attacks and amounts and types of pollen.
Dr Misra, an optometrist and scientist, is in the ophthalmology department and is currently conducting pilot research on the effects of seasonal variation on the ocular surface. Dr Misra has regularly noted inflammatory cells in the cornea of those with allergies. Whether these cells vary depending on pollen is something that needs to be investigated.
Both researchers would like to see permanent automated pollen monitoring stations throughout the country, so people could access real-time data on pollen that could inform prevention and care of all types of allergic reactions from hay fever to asthma, eczema and allergic eye conditions.
Australia has several pollen monitoring stations installed and Europe has about 600 pollen traps, several of which have been in operation for more than 50 years.
Back in 1988, the pollen trap was also on the roof of the museum, which is an ideal location as it is elevated and open on all four sides.
Auckland Museum asset manager, Edward Howell said the museum is dedicated to supporting research that benefits people in Tāmaki Makaurau and across Aotearoa.
“The unique characteristics of the museum building, including its elevated position and clear surroundings of the Domain, makes it is the ideal location for the pollen traps – so we are excited to have been able to support Dr Chan and Dr Misra’s research,” he said.
“Auckland Museum is one of the oldest research institutions in Aotearoa and we are happy to support researchers, especially if it helps us better understand our surrounding environment.”
The team is being assisted by doctoral researcher, Laura McDonald and Masters researcher, Natasha Ngadi, from the University of Auckland.
Making up the team is senior lecturer and palynology (pollen study) lab manager, Dr Katherine Holt, from Massey University.
McDonald and Ngadi change out the pollen trap each week and then identify and count the various types of pollen species, using facilities at the University of Auckland’s Science faculty, with expert advice from Dr Holt and Professor Newnham.
Dr Chan says the pollen capture is part of a larger project tackling New Zealand’s globally high rates of asthma and asthma attacks, which is itself rising around the world.