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Waikato science students tackle cancer and memory research

25 February, 2014

Waikato science students tackle cancer and memory research

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Biomedical research at Waikato University: From back left, Dr Michael Jameson, Dr Steven Bird, Greg Jacobson and Dr Logan Voss. From front left, Laura Bell, Dr Linda Peters, Kirsty Mayall and Stephen Evans.

Preventing breast cancer, reducing the toxicity of radiotherapy and chemotherapy side effects, and analysing memory function during anaesthesia, were the topics for three students from the University of Waikato, who have just completed summer studentships.

Laura Bell, Kirsty Mayall and Stephen Evans were each awarded a Waikato Clinical School Summer Studentship worth $5000. Laura and Kirsty are about to embark on their second year of a Master of Science (MSc), while Stephen is in his first year of a PhD. All three students are focusing on biomedical science and will each take their studentship research topic to the next level throughout 2014, as part of their degree.

Breast cancer prevention

Former Hamilton Girls’ High student Kirsty Mayall’s studentship research focuses on breast cancer prevention, and is co-supervised by University of Waikato lecturer and molecular geneticist Dr Linda Peters, and medical research scientist and consultant oncologist Dr Michael Jameson from the Waikato Hospital’s Oncology department.

“Selenium (Se) is an essential trace mineral that has critical roles in maintaining health in humans. Depending on the concentration and type of selenium, it can cause or prevent breast cancer,” says Kirsty.

The aim of this study is to test two different types of selenium at three concentrations each in human breast cancer cells that carry the BRCA1 mutation (an inherited breast and ovarian cancer gene).

“During my MSc I’ll be looking at the different concentrations of selenium on the breast cancer cell lines and what dose is lethal for the cells. From there we’ll investigate what dose is most effective at reducing the levels of DNA damage present in the cells.”

Reducing toxicity of radiotherapy and chemotherapy

Stephen Evans is supervised by Dr Jameson and Waikato University’s Dr Steve Bird, with additional support from Dr Peters and Dr Ray Cursons.

His study will also focus on selenium, but instead of cancer prevention, he will look at reducing the negative effects of cancer treatment.

“High doses of selenium have been shown to reduce chemotherapy and radiotherapy-induced toxicities towards blood forming stem cells in both animal and human studies. My project examines the effects of selenium on the growth of such cells when they are exposed to these toxic cancer treatments,” says Stephen.

Memory function during anaesthesia

Laura Bell was originally inspired to study biology by her Year 12 Hillcrest High School science teacher. Her research focuses on the effects of general anaesthetics on a patient’s memory and is supervised by Dr Peters alongside Dr Logan Voss from the Anaesthesia Department at Waikato Hospital.

“The mechanism by which anaesthetics disrupt memory is not well understood, but is likely to involve an interruption to gene expression and protein synthesis pathways,” says Laura.

Laura explains that previous studies have focused on the effect of anaesthetics in the hippocampal area of the brain. However, the cerebral cortex is also an important site for memory and this is the area that she will be investigating.

“In this study we will investigate anaesthetic effects on genes related to memory in the brain. In particular, we will determine whether general anaesthetics alter expression of genes related to signalling mechanisms.”

The projects provide further collaborative research links between staff from the University of Waikato and Waikato Hospital, which Dr Peters says is exciting for the development of biomedical science research at the University.


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