Kiwi Indian neuroscientist Dr Malvindar Singh-Bains has made some excellent progress in her research work on Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and X-linked Dystonia Parkinsonism and has published her research on some of the highly regarded medical journals in the world. 

Dr Malvindar is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland Centre for Brain Research, co-chair of the Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation of New Zealand and a science commentator for Radio New Zealand. 

In New Zealand, particularly in Auckland, she is no stranger to the Indian diaspora and the broader Kiwi community. She has been nominated and bestowed with several recognitions and awards in the last few years for her work. Dr Malvindar was named one of the five top women in Health and Science as well as one of the top 30 women in New Zealand for the NEXT Woman of the Year award. She received the prestigious Kiwi Indian Young Achiever of the Year at The Indian Weekender’s Kiwi Indian Hall of Fame Awards in 2016, KiwiBank Hero Award Medal and nominee for the New Zealander of the Year in 2019. 

Dr Malvindar also commenced the prestigious Leo Nilon Huntington’s Disease Research Fellowship, which is dedicated to the advancement of innovative treatments for Huntington’s disease, a fellowship awarded by the Governor-General of New Zealand.

In the recent past, Dr Malvindar has had her research published twice in one of the top five neurology journals in the world, Annals of Neurology, which is an internationally regarded medical journal. She has presented her research findings at the Hereditary Disease Foundation Conference and Mass General Institute for Neurogenerative Disease in Massachusetts, USA. Her visits to such conferences have led into large international collaborations including a unique project involving the Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston), Makati Medical Centre (Philippines) and The University of Auckland (NZ). 

Dr Malvinder with her mother Baljit at NEXT Woman of the Year award event

In a brief conversation with The Indian Weekender, Dr Malvindar explains more about her work into Huntington’s Disease, how it affects people, some of the discoveries she has made recently and how can one help the community by participating in different causes and fundraisers. 

IWK: What is the research project are you currently working on?

Dr Malvindar: My research is currently focussing on understanding changes to brain cells within human brain conditions such as Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and X-linked Dystonia Parkinsonism. More specifically, my ultimate goal is to drive the discovery of new disease indicators - and potential drug targets for the future.

I rely heavily on studying precious human brain tissue, generously bequeathed to the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand Human Brain Bank, which is located within the Centre for Brain Research at the University of Auckland.

Dr Malvinder with Governor-General of New Zealand Dame Patsy Reddy

IWK: Any significant discoveries or developments in your research work that you would like to share with the readers?

Dr Malvindar: There are some really exciting scientific discoveries that I have made in the past few years which include (1) finding a novel link between the pattern of brain cell loss and the types of symptoms patients with Huntington’s disease experience and; (2) identifying brain immune cell (microglia) and blood vessel changes in a brain region that was previously thought to be unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Through these revelations, we have moved further to fully unlocking how Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease affect the human brain, which has implications for the development of treatments and delivery of therapeutics to treat the cause and symptoms of these conditions.

Dr Malvinder with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 2019 Kiwi Bank New Zealander of the Year Award ceremony

IWK: For a layman, what is Huntington’s Disease (HD)? What are its effects; demography and age group prone to this disease?

Dr Malvindar: Huntington’s disease is a hereditary brain disorder which typically affects individuals in midlife (around age 30-40 years). The fact that the disease is hereditary means the parent with the condition has a 50% chance of passing it on to their child.

This is why we have set up an organisation to support young people affected because they are faced with so many challenges, including: 

 a. the risk of having the disease; 

 b. the impact on decisions to have children/relationships; 

 c. the impact on employment; 

 d. knowing their parent will need round the clock support as the disease progresses.

Huntington’s disease causes brain cells to die in specific brain areas, which stops the brain and body from working as well as they used to, which progresses to a point where the patient can no longer chew, swallow, or even breathe. 

Dr Malvindar receiving the Kiwi Indian Young Achiever of the Year Award at The Indian Weekender Hall of Fame Awards 2016 (from left: Prerna Joshi, Dr Malvindar Bains, then High Commissioner of India to NZ, HE Sanjiv Kohli and MD of IWK Bhav Dhillon)

The symptoms of this disorder are: 

a. Movement: symptoms that affect movements, for example, having uncontrollable movements and problems with balance and walking; b. Cognitive: symptoms that affect thinking and memory; c. Behavioural: symptoms that affect behaviour, for example, making them angry or sad, or making them act a certain way that is not how they usually act.

Huntington’s disease affects people all over the world; it doesn’t choose a particular demographic, religion, colour or race. There are patients affected in every country, including our Indian diaspora.

Dr Malvindar showing human brain teaching specimens to High School student Elisha King

IWK: Can you tell us about Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation (HDYO-NZ)?

Dr Malvindar: In 2013, I became a part of the founding team to set up the Huntington’s Disease Youth Organisation of New Zealand (HDYO-NZ). HDYO NZ is a voluntary organisation which provides support to the youth of New Zealand impacted by Huntington’s disease. The goal of this organisation is for the youth of New Zealand affected by HD to be knowledgeable, supported, and empowered through a strong community support network and accessible information. I am currently the co-chair of the organisation, which provides online support to young kiwis all over the country.

Dr Malvindar in her lab

IWK: How do you create awareness and help the affected?

Dr Malvindar: We do face-to-face meetups with young people who need support, even if it's just a friendly chat. Our awareness drives come in the form of movie screenings, bake sales, education days, social events and media campaigns to drop the stigma and raise the profile of Huntington’s disease. 

Presently, we are fundraising for a youth worker and sending young people impacted by HD to an international conference in Glasgow. We encourage people to come forward to help our cause, and they can make their donations on https://givealittle.co.nz/org/hdyonz and our website, www.hdyo.co.nz