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Otago Scientists Win National Award For Cancer Research

A University of Otago researcher and a colorectal surgeon have won the 2020 NZ Society for Oncology (NZSO) Roche Translational Cancer Research Fellowship to advance knowledge of how inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) related colorectal cancer develops, and ultimately to improve treatment for patients.

Researcher Dr Rachel Purcell (PhD) and consultant surgeon Dr Tamara Glyn (MBChB, FRACS) were announced as winners of the award at the NZ Society for Oncology (NZSO) Annual Virtual Conference recently. Dr Purcell was also named Roche Fellow for 2020. The Roche award, which has an annual value of $30,000, provides a unique opportunity for NZ cancer research teams to up-skill an integral team member, so that the team can work together more effectively and improve research output.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is a chronic, autoimmune, inflammatory condition affecting the gastro-intestinal tract. It is a relatively common and growing condition in New Zealand, often affecting young people for many years of their lives. Around 15,000 Kiwis are affected by IBD.

In addition, chronic, colonic inflammation increases a patient’s risk of developing bowel cancer. This risk is proportional to the extent, severity and duration of inflammation, implying a direct role of inflammation in the development of bowel cancer in these patients. There is no known cure for IBD.

The Otago project aims to use a novel technique (NanoString GeoMx) to explore the immune-cell landscape in inflammatory bowel cancers. The team aims to identify key cell types and establish their roles in the development of IBD-related colorectal cancer.

Dr Purcell is an emerging researcher at the Department of Surgery at the University of Otago, Christchurch, with a background in molecular biology and current research interests in molecular mechanisms of colorectal cancer using multi-omics (genomics and related technology) approaches.

Dr Glyn is a senior lecturer and consultant general and colorectal surgeon in the same department. She has an ongoing interest in inflammation-driven CRC and surgery for advanced colorectal malignancy. Dr Glyn has established this national multicentre study that includes researchers and clinicians from Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland.

“The Roche Fellowship will allow us to explore this novel analytical technology by supporting me to travel to one of the NanoString operational centres overseas and carry out this exciting research. This project has the potential to identify predictive biomarkers for IBD-related CRC with far-reaching consequences for surveillance and management of patients with IBD,” says Dr Purcell.

“We believe Dr Purcell and Dr Glyn’s project typifies the award’s aim of encouraging and enabling clinicians and scientists to work together to translate their research into effective outcomes for patients. Roche NZ is proud to support local researchers to better understand, treat and potentially, cure cancer,” says Roche Foundation Medicine’s Dr Stuart Ryan.

“The winning team fit the criteria for the Roche award brilliantly. Dr Rachel Purcell and Dr Tamara Glyn were the unanimous choice of our judges who had their work cut out with eight applications this year,” comments NZSO president, Dr Kate Clarke.

Award judges were Dr Kate Mahon, Prof Helen Rizos and Dr Michael Jamieson. Dr Kate Mahon is Australian based medical oncologist with a research interest in colorectal and prostate cancer who works at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse – she received her PhD from Uni of Sydney based on her work at Garvan Institute. Prof Helen Rizos is HOD Macquarie University, a member of Melanoma Institute Australia and Dr Michael Jamieson is a long-time member of NZSO and an enthusiastic clinical researcher.

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