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Former summer student at forefront of Breast Cancer research

Four years ago Tauranga raised Olivia Burn was one of the first science students selected for the Bay of Plenty District Health Board Clinical School’s Summer Studentship programme. Today she’s part of a Malaghan Institute of Medical Research team that ultimately could make a huge impact on New Zealand’s breast cancer survival rates.

Breast cancer is New Zealand’s third most common cancer and accounts for more than 600 deaths every year. Most of these deaths are due to breast cancer cells metastasising (spreading) to other parts of the body, most commonly bones and quite often this ‘relapse’ can occur years after the initial cancer treatment.

Olivia’s completing her PhD as part of Malaghan’s Cancer Immunotherapy team, looking at the potential for vaccines to stop the cancer spreading.

The Wellington-based team is researching breast cancer vaccines in different combinations and conditions to try to create stronger protection across various organs.

“We want to know if these different vaccines protect different organs against breast cancer metastases that have HER2 – the target of the anti-breast cancer drug Herceptin,” said Olivia.

Olivia’s first taste of health research was in the summer of 2013-2014 when she was selected for the BOPDHB’s Clinical School Summer Studentship programme.

A science student amongst a group of medical students, Olivia spent the summer talking to multiple sclerosis (MS) patients across the Bay. Working with Tauranga Hospital Neurologist Dr Andrew Chancellor, the research looked at the impact of the disease on the individual’s quality of life as it progressed.

Olivia has chosen the medical research pathway because she wants to be at the forefront of deepening our understanding of certain diseases, and be involved in developing new drugs to address them.

“Unfortunately, in the setting of breast cancer, our current clinical options are not effectively preventing cancer relapse,” said Olivia. “With my research I want to determine how we can harness the power of the immune system to combat these residual cancer cells and keep patients in remission.”

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