Associate Professor Mervyn John Merrilees

BSc Hons, DSc, PhD


Throughout my research career I have had a special interest in factors that affect the morphology, structure and matrix composition of tissues. Initially studies were directed at understanding how epithelial tissues, including sense organs, influence tissue structure and remodeling. These studies were carried out on the lateral line sensory system in fish. I then moved to studies on the effects of mechanical forces on mammalian tissues, especially in relation to tendon structure, and wound healing and the formation of hypertrophic scars. This was followed by further investigations on how other tissues and cells affect tissue structure and composition. The major model system for these latter studies has been the artery wall where we have shown that vascular endothelium can be a potent modulator of matrix composition in the underlying wall.The significance of these studies is that this epithelial/mesenchymal interaction is believed to play a major role in the development of atherosclerotic plaques.

These studies culminated with the discovery of an endothelial factor (TGF-B) responsible for stimulating increased synthesis of matrix proteoglycans in the vessel wall. These proteoglycans trap, bind, and enhance the uptake of atherogenic cholesterol-containing lipoproteins.  It is now believed that the interaction between proteoglycans and lipids is the key event in the initiation of lesion development and this idea is encapsulated in the "Response-to-Retention Hypothesis" of atherogenesis.  Current studies are directed at finding ways in which matrix composition can be modulated to produce a more compact and 'lipid resistant' intima. Through gene manipulation we have recently discovered how to switch on elastin synthesis and have been able to change the structure of blood vessel wall in vivo to produce an intima that is elastin-rich and resembles a media. The aim now is to dissect the mechanism by which elastin is upregulated and assembled into fibres and also to find a way of achieving elastogenesis through pharmaceutical approaches. We are currently testing the engineered elastin-rich neotima to find out if it is resistant to deposition of cholesterol-containing lipoproteins. We are also extending these studies on elastin to lung and lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lymphangioleiomyomatosis, where there is a deficiency of elastin, and to the fibrosis that occurs in transplanted kidneys undergoing chronic allograft nephropathy.

View Merv's CV (Updated April 2009)

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Johnson, J. L., Merrilees, M., Shragge, J., & van Wijk, K. (2018). All-optical extravascular laser-ultrasound and photoacoustic imaging of calcified atherosclerotic plaque in excised carotid artery. Photoacoustics, 9, 62-72. 10.1016/j.pacs.2018.01.002
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Kasper van Wijk
  • Wu, L., Zhang, J., Qu, J. M., Bai, C.-X., & Merrilees, M. J. (2017). Deposition of insoluble elastin by pulmonary fibroblasts from patients with COPD is increased by treatment with versican siRNA. International journal of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 12, 267-273. 10.2147/copd.s116217
  • Kang, I., Harten, I. A., Chang, M. Y., Braun, K. R., Sheih, A., Nivison, M. P., ... Evanko, S. P. (2017). Versican deficiency significantly reduces lung inflammatory response induced by polyinosine-polycytidylic acidstimulation. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 292 (1), 51-63. 10.1109/JPHOT.2016.2639045
  • Johnson, J. L., van Wijk, K., & Merrilees, M. (2017). All-optical Photoacoustic and laser-ultrasound imaging of fixed arterial tissue. Paper presented at Conference on Photons Plus Ultrasound - Imaging and Sensing, San Francisco, CA. 29 January - 1 February 2017. Photons plus ultrasound: Imaging and sensing 2017. (pp. 1). 10.1117/12.2251553
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Kasper van Wijk
  • Atochina-Vasserman, E. N., Merrilees, M. J., Lian, L., Rue, R., Zuo, N., Angel, L. F., ... Wight, T. N. (2017). Pd-L1 In Pulmonary Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (lam): A Potential Therapeutic Target For Advanced Disease With Loss Of Tsc1/2. Paper presented at International Conference of the American-Thoracic-Society (ATS), Washington, DC. 19 May - 24 May 2017. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF RESPIRATORY AND CRITICAL CARE MEDICINE. (pp. 1).
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Lulu Zuo
  • Kang, I., Harten, I. A., Chang, M. Y., Braun, K. R., Sheih, A., Nivison, M. P., ... Evanko, S. P. (2017). Versican Deficiency Significantly Reduces Lung Inflammatory Response Induced by Polyinosine-Polycytidylic Acid Stimulation. The Journal of biological chemistry, 292 (1), 51-63. 10.1074/jbc.m116.753186
  • Miller, L. M., Hodgson, R., Wong, T. Y., Merrilees, M., Norman, R. J., & Johnson, N. P. (2016). Single embryo transfer for all?. The Australian & New Zealand journal of obstetrics & gynaecology, 56 (5), 514-517. 10.1111/ajo.12478
  • Reeves, S. R., Kaber, G., Sheih, A., Cheng, G., Aronica, M. A., Merrilees, M. J., ... Wight, T. N. (2016). Subepithelial Accumulation of Versican in a Cockroach Antigen-Induced Murine Model of Allergic Asthma. The journal of histochemistry and cytochemistry : official journal of the Histochemistry Society, 64 (6), 364-380. 10.1369/0022155416642989

Contact details

Primary office location

M&HS BUILDING 503 - Bldg 503
Level 2, Room 233
New Zealand