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Cancer Vaccine Research Rewarded

Cancer Vaccine Research Rewarded

Research to devise improved cancer vaccines has won the Advancing Human Health and Wellbeing category of the MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards held in Auckland last night (14 August).

PhD student Dianne Sika-Paotonu is working at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, researching potent new vaccines that may be able to activate a patient’s immune cells to destroy cancer tissue.
Staff at the Malaghan Institute, located at the University's Kelburn campus, work closely with staff at the University's School of Biological Sciences, supervising PhD students and contributing to our teaching programmes in biomedical science and molecular biology.
Ms Sika-Paotonu's research centres on dendritic cells—a rare group of immune cells in the human body responsible for initiating immune responses. When functioning properly, dendritic cells can activate T-cells, considered the foot soldiers of immune response, to destroy cancer tissue. Dendritic cells in a cancer patient often don’t work as they should.

A therapeutic cancer vaccine is made by loading properly functioning dendritic cells with tumour fragments and injecting them back into the body. Although this prompts T-cells to become cancer fighters, this treatment is not yet powerful enough to act as a frontline cancer therapy.

Ms Sika-Paotonu's breakthrough strategies involve coating the dendritic cells with a sea sponge extract that causes the dendritic cells to work harder at turning the T-cells into cancer killers, promoting a more potent tumour-killing response than cancer vaccines currently being trialled.

As a young girl Ms Sika-Paotonu made a promise to herself to help find a cure for cancer when a close family friend died of the disease. After leaving Wellington Girls’ College, she worked at Wellington Hospital and studied through Auckland University of Technology for anaesthetic technician qualifications before completing a Masters in Biomedical Science (Hons) at Victoria University.

Ms Sika-Paotonu is also a senior mentor in the Te Ropu Awhina programme at Victoria University. Her achievements and Tongan background are regularly highlighted as an example to Pacific Island and Maori students on campus and in the secondary schools she visits schools as part her Awhina role to encourage participation and success in science and technology.


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