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Poignant gift helps others

Wednesday 27 June 2018 5:10pm

Personal tragedy motivated Paris-based Julie Vandingenen to donate NZ$34,000 to help Otago research into the role of mutations in the CDH1 gene in familial gastric cancer.

Staff from Otago’s Centre for Translational Cancer Research (CTCR) thanked Julie for her gift, and for sharing her poignant story, when she visited the University’s Dunedin campus late last year.

Julie Vandingenen
(From left) Assistant research fellow Tanis Godwin and Professor Parry Guilford show Julie the Dunedin campus laboratory.

Professor Parry Guilford said Julie’s gift would help his team continue their ground-breaking work in understanding the role of mutations in the CDH1 gene.

Julie’s generosity was motivated by personal tragedy; the funds donated were raised via crowdfunding after her fiancé Louis Fouchault recently succumbed to aggressive gastric cancer, related to having a mutation in the CDH1 gene.

Louis, who she describes as a “beautiful person, both on the inside and outside”, died in August, aged 26, only six months after his cancer diagnosis.

Making the donation to the CTCR honoured his memory and his wish to support scientific inquiry that would benefit many.

“He believed in science,” she says.

During Louis’ illness Julie corresponded with Professor Guilford about trends in diagnoses and potential treatments for the gene-related disease.

Professor Guilford said the gift meant his laboratory could buy a 300 drug “library”.

Drugs from the arsenal would be used to focus on one area of likely vulnerability in cancer cells with a CDH1 mutation.

Obtaining such a comprehensive collection would usually be prohibitively expensive, he says.

“We bought in a cherry-picked library of around 300 drugs, most of which have been tested now. We have got ~25 hits from the screen of this library. These hits have identified a couple of areas of vulnerability in the cancer cells we are trying to kill, so we are very encouraged and will be taking several of the hits into our next validation stage.”

During a tour of the laboratory Professor Guilford showed Julie 3D colour images of a recent breakthrough in cultivating CDH1 mutant cells; for the first time “anywhere in the world” the cells have been grown successfully, making it easier to track the progress of chemicals in attacking their structure.

Assistant research fellow Tanis Godwin says having access to a large number of targeted drugs will greatly speed up research.

It is hoped that individual drugs or “cocktails” will be identified which, after clinical trials, could spare patients from aggressive surgery and intensive chemotherapy, she says.

The goal is to have a clinically approved drug available by the time the children of today are in their late teens and looking for a better option.

Portrait of Louis
Julie also gave the CTCR a portrait of Louis for display in the lab.

The team’s research started in 1996 and initially looked at the high incidence rates of familial gastric cancer in Māori. In the first two years the team had rapid success in mapping the gene responsible.

Subsequent CTCR research has led to a greater understanding of the natural history of the disease and the identification of key vulnerabilities in CDH1 mutant cells which the team believe can be successfully and selectively targeted with drugs.

Julie left a portrait of Louis on his 26th birthday, which will be displayed in the lab.

“It shows Louis receiving his present. Today, his loved ones and I gave him the present of helping research being continued in his name, so that now no other families have to suffer such a great loss.”

Foundation trust 2017 report thumbnail

Foundation Trust 2017 Report

The University of Otago is grateful to all donors who, through their generosity, are enabling the Foundation Trust to provide support across the spectrum of all University activities.

Read the 2017 report online