Cancer research boosted by awards

Research intended to make powerful new anti-cancer drugs even more effective is among University of Otago projects boosted by $3.8million in career development awards.

The ''transformative'' new drugs, supported by the research, are likely to make a big positive change to treatment in the southern South Island, and in particular Southland, which has New Zealand's highest rate of bowel cancer.

Dr Nicholas Fleming, of the Otago pathology department, has hailed as ''fantastic'' a $600,000 Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship he has received to undertake the cancer research.

This is part of the $3.8million granted to Otago University through the Health Research Council's 2020 career development awards, announced today.

Dr Fleming said his research was also part of collaborative efforts involving the Southern District Health Board and 198 bowel cancer patients treated through Dunedin Hospital.

A new class of cancer drugs called the immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) ,including Keytruda, were ''making a transformative impact on the

treatment of cancers, including bowel cancer'', he said.

''However, evidence suggests they will only work for a subset of patients unless better predictive biomarkers and co-operating drugs are identified,'' he said.

By undertaking the first comprehensive molecular analysis of southern region patients, he had discovered two new biomarkers that might help ''best direct'' the use of the ICI drugs, for southern bowel cancer treatment.

These markers, which help identify patients who would benefit most from the new treatment, were likely to help direct the use of this therapy for bowel cancers across the country and overseas, he said.

A total of 23 Otago researchers gained awards, and were among 67 researchers around the country who received more than $13.4million in HRC funding.

Two other researchers, at Otago's Christchurch campus, Dr Christoph Goebl ($587,351) and Dr Rachel Purcell ($598,972) have also received Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowships to undertake cancer research.

Dr Goebl said cancer was the biggest cause of death in New Zealand and was often treated by chemotherapy, but this treatment often had a low success rate.

His team had recently discovered that the protein AhR was a major contributor to tumour formation, and his research aimed to help clarify the underlying molecular mechanism, in order to boost the efficiency of targeted therapies.

Dr Purcell's study will investigate the link between the microorganisms living in our gut (the microbiome) and the vital host mechanisms involved in colorectal cancer development.

The aim was to develop more sensitive early detection of colorectal cancer, she said.

Sarah Walker is an Otago PhD student who works at Dunstan Hospital.

She has just been awarded a $204,000 clinical research training fellowship to investigate the scope of practice, challenges and complexities experienced by rural allied health professionals.

Other clinical research training fellowships: Ms Louise Fangupo, $320,000; Dr Amanda Landers, Christchurch, $319,850; Dr Matt Richardson, $320,000.

2020 Maori health research PhD scholarship: Lisa Kremer, $74,927; Georgia McCarty, $135,000.

Maori health research development grant: Carmen Timu-Parata, Wellington, $10,000.

Maori health research summer studentship, all $5000: Ms Julia Law; Denver Ruwhiu, Wellington; Rian Sanerive; Ben Shine.

2020 Pacific health career development awards:

Sir Thomas Davis Te Patu Kite Rangi Ariki Health Research Fellowship, Dr Jesse Kokaua, Wellington, $256,775.

Pacific health research PhD scholarship: Amy Henry, Christchurch, $134,921; Albany Lucas, Wellington, $132,661; Pacific health research masters scholarship, Tutangi Amataiti, Wellington, $30,951; Tilda Leleai, $28,845.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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