Who we fund

The Cancer Society is excited to fund the following researchers through the 2018 Research Grant Round. Read more about the researchers we support and their projects below.

Research Projects

Dr Susan Bigby, The University of Auckland


Analysing DNA in women with vulval cancer

Vulval cancer is potentially debilitating, and the underlying molecular changes that allow cancer to develop are unclear.  Approximately 20% of women develop a second cancer (local relapse) despite adequate treatment. It is unclear if the second cancer is related to the first or not.

The research group hypothesise that some types of vulval cancer develop due to the background skin becoming genetically damaged. The group also hypothesise that local relapses represent a mixed group, with some cancers due to relapse of the original cancer, and some representing new cancers arising in background damaged skin.

The researchers will analyse DNA from 5 women with vulval cancer and hope to identify alterations in their DNA that may have caused their cancer. They will also compare DNA found in the original tumours with DNA found in the locally relapsing tumours in order to determine their relationship.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

Detection of specific alterations in the DNA may present potential new drug targets for vulval cancer, as well as help predict prognosis for people diagnosed with vulval cancer. Comparison of the genetics between primary and secondary cancers may provide a potential for early preventative intervention.


Dr Susan Bigby has been funded $21,000 to support her research.

Dr Mark Calcott, Victoria University of Wellington


Identifying compounds with anti-cancer properties from New Zealand soil

Duocarmycins are a small family of exceptionally toxic natural products that hold great potential as anti-cancer agents.

Few naturally occurring compounds of the duocarmycin family have been discovered - only four in total since the first was identified nearly 40 years ago. The limited diversity results from a non-targeted approach to searching for compounds and consequently it is likely that we have not discovered the best duocarmycin analogues present in nature.

This study will use a new method for discovering duocarmycin compounds from New Zealand soils. Once the researchers have isolated the compounds they will be characterised and tested for anti-cancer properties.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

These targeted methods could aid the discovery of new duocarmycin compounds, which could then be used as scaffolds for designing new anti-cancer drugs.

Dr Mark Calcott has been funded $214,776 to support his research.

Associate Professor Gabi Dachs and Dr Elisabeth Phillips, University of Otago (Christchurch)


Investigating the effect of vitamin C in bowel cancer

Recent intriguing discoveries have focused attention on the role of vitamin C in cancer progression and treatment. It is now well established that vitamin C is essential for a number of cellular functions, which in turn impact functions such as mood stability and tumour aggression.

However, it is evident that not all molecular pathways important for cancer progression that depend on vitamin C have been identified.

The researchers will supplement bowel cancer cell lines (cells which have been cultured in the laboratory) with vitamin C. They will then identify and quantify the proteins that changed in cancer cells that were grown with vitamin C and compare these to proteins from cancer cells that were not exposed to vitamin C. These results will enable the researchers in future to identify proteins in patient samples.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

Identifying the molecular pathways associated with vitamin C in cancer will help us understand the potential role of vitamin C in cancer treatment. In particular it will provide data around the role of vitamin C in people with cancer.s.

Gabi Dachs and Elisabeth Phillips have been funded $78,889 to support their research.

 Dr Sarah Diermeier, University of Otago


How do tumors spread to other parts of the body?

Long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) are molecules that help turn genes on and off in different cells.

Previous research found that one specific lncRNA was more active in breast cancer cells than normal breast cells. Dr Sarah Diermeier and her team hypothesise that this highly active lncRNA molecule found in breast cancer cells is contributing to the spread of the tumour to other parts of the body, such as the brain, bone, lungs and liver.

The researchers will remove the highly active lncRNA molecule from mice and human breast cancer cells and look at the effect this has on the ability of the cancer to spread. They will also look at the effect of making the lncRNA highly active in normal breast cancer cells to see if this causes the tumour to spread.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

Gaining a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that lead to the spread of cancer will bring researchers closer to finding treatments to target these mechanisms. These treatments could have the potential to slow or stop the spread of cancer to other parts of the body.

Dr Sarah Diermeier has been funded $194,223 to support her research.

 Dr Catherine Drummond, University of Otago


Identifying new drugs for prostate cancer therapy

Prostate cancer accounts for 27% of all male cancers and every year over 3000 New Zealand men are diagnosed with the disease. The poor survival rate of patients with metastatic disease highlights the need to find more effective treatment strategies for prostate cancer patients.

Previous research has shown that a protein called Δ133p53β is highly expressed in some cancer types and promotes cancer growth when dysregulated. We think that Δ133p53β may play a role in prostate cancer. Thus, it is thought that inhibiting Δ133p53β activity may have a therapeutic benefit for patients. Currently there are no known inhibitors of Δ133p53β, nor is it known how to inhibit Δ133p53β pharmacologically.

Our researchers will develop a strategy for identifying Δ133p53β inhibitors. They will also test a number of clinically approved drugs for their ability to inhibit Δ133p53β.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

If successful, this research could lead to the first known Δ133p53β inhibitors and provide new approaches for treating prostate cancer patients.

Dr Catherine Drummond has been funded $241,659 to support her research.

Dr Julie Horsfield, University of Otago 


Could a combination of existing therapies be used to treat acute myeloid leukaemia (an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow)?

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow with an overall survival of ~30%. Outcomes for older patients are especially poor, with cure rates of only 10-15%. Our fundamental understanding of how leukaemia develops remains incomplete, and little is known about the founding mutations of AML. Treatment for AML has not changed substantially in more than 30 years.

While exciting progress has been made in the development of drugs targeting recently identified mutations, it is unlikely any single-agent drug will cure the disease. Thus, researchers at the University of Otago will be looking at whether a combination of existing drugs could be effective in treating the disease.

The researchers will study AML cells which have been cultured in the laboratory. Firstly, they will identify combinations of genetic mutations that either cause cancer growth or prevent cancer growth. They will then use different combinations of existing drugs to target these genetic mutations and determine whether using a “precision medicine” strategy is more effective than standard treatment in preventing cancer growth.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

This study will help provide insight into the origins of leukaemia and may help identify new personalised therapies for people with AML.

Dr Julie Horsfield has been funded $296,180 to support her research.

Dr Francis Hunter, The University of Auckland


Using genetics to identify opportunities for new skin cancer treatments

New Zealand has the highest rates of malignant melanoma (an aggressive type of skin cancer) in the world.

Previous studies have shown that some malignant melanomas are caused by alterations within the NRAS gene. Malignant melanomas caused by this alteration to the NRAS gene are associated with a high risk of the disease spreading to the brain. Also, if the standard immunotherapy fails, there are currently no effective drugs available for patients with this form of malignant melanoma.

In this study, the researchers will compare melanoma cells with the altered NRAS gene to melanoma cells without the altered NRAS gene to identify genetic dependencies in these cells that may be amenable to targeting with new treatments. They will use technologies that can alter the structure of the DNA and analyse the DNA sequence (determine the order of the four chemical building blocks that make up the DNA molecule) in order to identify genetic vulnerabilities in this specific type of cancer.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

This study will help improve our understanding of the role genetics plays in the development of malignant melanomas. If the research group discover genetic vulnerabilities within the melanoma cells, these could present potential new drug targets to aid future treatment of the disease.

Dr Francis Hunter has been funded $221,527 to support his research.

 Dr Melanie McConnell, Victoria University of Wellington


Why do brain tumour cells survive after radiation and chemotherapy?

Glioblastoma is a type of brain tumour that is notoriously difficult to treat, in part because cells do not die after radiation and chemotherapy. One reason for this is a factor called BCL6, which is normally involved in the development of the immune system.

Previous studies have shown that BCL6 is not found in normal brain cells, but it keeps glioblastoma cells alive during radiation and chemotherapy. Dr. McConnell and her team will look at how BCL6 works in glioblastoma cells, which is clearly distinct from its activity in developing immune cells.  They will also block BCL6 activity and decipher the precise molecular events by which BCL6 keeps glioblastoma cells alive during therapy.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

People diagnosed with glioblastoma usually have a very poor prognosis due to a lack of response to therapy. This study will help improve our understanding of how BCL6 allows glioblastoma to survive therapy. Bypassing this survival advantage may be the first step towards improving treatment for patients with glioblastoma.

Dr Melanie McConnell has been funded $160,512 to support her research.

Phd scholarships

Elisabeth Dunn, University of Canterbury


Identifying new laboratory techniques to speed up drug discovery for ovarian cancer

Cancer cell lines are cancer are model systems using cells that have been derived from tumours. Given the heterogeneous nature of tumours that may arise from different origins there is no single generic cell line for a particular cancer. Thus, the use of different representative cell lines, with each cell line having a different genetic makeup. Cancer cell lines are the foundation on which most cancer treatments are developed, as they enable analysis of anti-cancer drug efficacy without any detriment to cancer patients.

However, most research groups within New Zealand have limited resources and only use a few cell lines to investigate treatment strategies (with a range of different physical and genetic features). This means that an effective treatment may be overlooked and resources wasted, due to testing on cell lines that do not have the correct genetic makeup.

For Elizabeth’s PhD scholarship, she will further analyse the genetic makeup of ovarian cancer cell lines. She will use ovarian cancer cell lines with different genetic make ups and analyse how they respond to novel treatments. She will then identify whether genetics-based selection of cell lines promotes discovery of effective drug combinations.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

If genetics-based selection of cell lines is established as an effective selection process, it may improve research efficiency, reduce cost and reduce the time it takes to develop novel treatment strategies for people with cancer.

Elizabeth Dunn has been funded $50,000 to support her research.

Anne Fraser, Auckland City Hospital


Investigating alternative models for follow-up for lung cancer patients

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death both in NZ and worldwide. Currently, people diagnosed with lung cancer attend three monthly follow-up appointments with their Doctor.

Attendance at these appointments can impact on patient’s quality of life and anxiety. Many patient’s experiences of attending follow-up appointments is that they are a ‘waste of a day’, ‘require unnecessary travel’, and ‘could have been done by a nurse on the phone’.

For her PhD, Ann Fraser will build and evaluate a novel follow up model for advanced stage lung cancer patients. She will conduct a literature review looking at follow-up systems used for cancer patients internationally. She will then conduct a trial conducted at two clinical centres in New Zealand where she will identify patient preference for follow-up.

How will it help people affected by cancer?

The results of this research may result in a restructure of clinics for advanced stage lung cancer patients and potential role out across other oncology tumour streams. Overall, it may result in improvements in cancer care and patient’s quality of life.

Anne Fraser has been funded $75,000 to support her research.