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New ideas for detecting cancer get go-ahead

New ideas for detecting cancer get go-ahead from research funding body

Can dogs really sniff out cancer? Thanks to a grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC), a University of Waikato lecturer can now test this theory in a clinical setting.

Dr Timothy Edwards from the University’s School of Psychology has just secured an Emerging Researcher First Grant, valued at $233,607, to see if scent-detection dogs can accurately identify lung cancer, using breath and saliva samples.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in New Zealand, mainly because of the high cost of current lung cancer screening methods, which results in late detection.

Dr Edwards says several studies have demonstrated scent-detection dogs’ ability to accurately identify cancer, but few studies have involved methods that can be used in a clinical setting.

“An operationally-viable detection system for lung cancer would have significant health and economic benefits in New Zealand and internationally,” he says. Improvements in accuracy and speed of diagnosis could result in increased detection rates and reduced mortality for people with lung cancer.

Before joining the University of Waikato, Dr Edwards worked for a humanitarian organisation in Tanzania investigating the accuracy of tuberculosis-detection by giant African pouched rats. Drawing on that experience, he’s established a scent-detection research facility at the university and designed and built an automated canine scent-detection apparatus which will be used for his research.

HRC chief executive Professor Kath McPherson says the contribution that animals can make to human health and wellbeing has been long known, but their role in detecting ill health is a more recent development.

“Evidence shows there are specific odour profiles associated with lung cancer, so there’s a chance this research might identify a valuable tool for earlier detection of the disease, or help inform the development of machine-based sensor technology. We think that’s worth a deeper look,” she says.

Another researcher focused on the earlier detection of cancer has also just secured her first significant grant from the HRC, valued at $249,984, for her novel proposal for diagnosing colorectal cancer.

Dr Kirsty Danielson, lecturer in the Department of Surgery and Anaesthesia at the University of Otago, Wellington, will investigate if the presence of certain types of molecules in the blood could be a reliable bio-marker for detecting colorectal cancer, and even predicting a person’s response to chemotherapy.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the world, resulting in approximately 1200 deaths a year. Current screening strategies are invasive, have a high resource burden, or lack the sensitivity required to detect cancer at an early stage, she says.

“While the current roll-out of the national bowel screening programme is a positive step, the method used still has limited sensitivity for detecting early cancers and will add pressure on hospitals to perform more colonoscopies.

“There’s an urgent need for novel, sensitive, and minimally-invasive diagnostic strategies for early-stage diagnosis,” says Dr Danielson, who hopes her research will enhance knowledge in this field and ultimately reduce deaths related to colorectal cancer.

Professor McPherson says the HRC is committed to supporting “our brightest and best new talent”. In total, the research funding body has awarded $2,850,808 to 12 emerging researchers seeking to establish independent health research careers in New Zealand.

See below for the full list of 2018 HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant recipients, and to read lay summaries of the research projects, go to and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Emerging Researcher First Grants’ and ‘2018’.

2018 Emerging Researcher First Grants – full list

Dr Sarah Appleby, University of Otago, Christchurch

Role of myoregulin in cardiovascular disease

36 months, $249,265

Dr Octavia Calder Dawe, Massey University, Auckland

Working on wellbeing with young people

36 months, $249,966

Dr Nadia Charania, AUT University

Exploring immunisation inequities among refugee children in New Zealand

24 months, $125,424

Dr Kirsty Danielson, University of Otago, Wellington

Circulating RNA as diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers in colorectal cancer

36 months, $249,984

Dr Rebecca Dyson, University of Otago, Wellington

Omega-3 for improvement of cardiometabolic outcomes following preterm birth

36 months, $249,660

Dr Timothy Edwards, University of Waikato

Lung cancer screening with scent-detection dogs

36 months, $233,607

Dr Rosemary Gibson, Massey University, Wellington

The role of sleep in healthy ageing and living well with dementia

36 months, $249,998

Dr Rachel Purcell, University of Otago, Christchurch

CRC predict study - association of molecular subtypes and microbiome in CRC

24 months, $249,477

Dr David Rice, Waitemata DHB

Anti-depressants for osteoarthritis pain: Can we predict treatment efficacy?

24 months, $247,098

Dr Brie Sorrenson, The University of Auckland

Understanding genetic factors that influence beta-cell function

36 months, $247,576

Dr Aaron Stevens, University of Otago, Christchurch

Can inflammation and aging modify the human epigenome?

36 months, $249,137

Dr Kate Thomas, University of Otago, Dunedin

Optimisation of pre-operative cardiovascular fitness: The heat vs. HIIT study

36 months, $249,615


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