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Visiting Oxford Physicist Researching Cancer & Other Disease

Visiting Oxford Physicist Researching Into Cancer And Other Diseases At UC

March 14, 2013

A visiting University of Oxford lecturer is researching medical imaging at University of Canterbury (UC) to help in the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

Chemical physicist Dr Claire Vallance earned her PhD at UC before going to Oxford to lecture in chemistry. She has returned this semester as a visiting Oxford fellow, which is part of the Erskine programme.

The Erskine fellowship programme was established in 1963 following a generous bequest left by former distinguished UC student John Erskine.

``We are seeking to understand the effects of new treatments at a molecular level. The early signs for our techniques are looking quite promising.

``In cancer research, we want to know the answers to questions such as whether a drug molecule can penetrate into the centre of a tumour, how it interacts with both healthy and cancerous cells, how the drug is processed by the body and whether it remains in its active form or is degraded into other inactive or even dangerous forms.

``A chemical microscope can help to answer all of these questions. When used to analyse a tissue sample, for example from a tumour biopsy, our new instruments can provide images showing the distributions of the drug molecule and any other molecules of interest with essentially no background from the thousands of other molecular species present in the sample. The answers to the questions become, literally, plain for all to see,’’ Dr Vallance said.

Nearly 21,000 New Zealanders were diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Between 1999 and 2009 the number of people diagnosed with cancer increased by 22.8 percent, according to the latest New Zealand Cancer Registry figures.

Cancer was the leading cause of death in New Zealand in 2009, accounting for 28.9 percent of all deaths. In 2009, 8437 people died of cancer. In the 10 years to 2009 the rate of death from cancer decreased by 16.2 percent, from 151.4 per 100,000 population in 1999 to 126.8 in 2009.

The chemical microscope project involves three Oxford-based research groups and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a UK government-funded research institute near Oxford. Various medical experts are also involved.

``Mass spectrometry is a ubiquitous analytical technique used for identifying and quantifying molecules. It is widely used in applications ranging from testing for the use of performance enhancing drugs in athletes to locating oil deposits in rock and checking for contamination in foodstuffs.

``We are combining mass spectrometry with imaging techniques to create powerful new tools for both fundamental and applied science. At one end of the spectrum, we can use these new tools to probe the fundamental forces involved in chemical reactions and, at the other, we are developing new methods for medical imaging based on 'chemical microscopy' of tissue samples.

``While a commercial version of our chemical microscope is still a few years away we have already shown that we can reduce the time needed for chemical imaging of tissues from many hours down to a few minutes.

``This has the potential to move such techniques from the research laboratory into clinical practice, as a routine method for screening biopsy samples to diagnose a range of illnesses or to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments,’’ Dr Vallance said.


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