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Christchurch PhD student named in Black Sticks

Tuesday 13 November 2018 9:08pm

Otago postgraduate Leah Butt (centre) has been selected for the Black Sticks.

University of Otago, Christchurch postgraduate student Leah Butt has been selected for New Zealand’s national hockey team, the Black Sticks.

The team was announced last week and will mean the Christchurch-based scientist will move to Auckland to continue her studies and train with the national squad.

Leah Butt in the lab.

Leah is studying the side effects of new cancer immunotherapy drugs in patients with melanoma for her PhD.

She says the new immunotherapy drugs are proving to be ‘life-savers’ for many patients, winning their inventors a Nobel Prize for medicine this year.

However, some patients experience nasty side effects such as skin rashes and other autoimmune-like conditions while taking the medicines. Leah says the immunotherapy drugs ‘kick start’ patients’ immune systems to fight off cancer but may also cause immune cells to attack or affect other healthy cells.

Leah is getting blood samples from patients in Christchurch Hospital who are taking the new immunotherapy medication. She will analyse the blood using a new state-of-the-art mass spectrometry machine to find differences between those who experiene side effects and those who do not.

"I really enjoy studying in the field of human health ... it is very stimulating and immunotherapy is a hot topic at the moment with developments happening all the time."

As part of the national hockey squad, Leah will train six days a week in the morning and evening, at the Black Sticks' base on Auckland’s North Shore. While she is with the national squad she will continue her PhD study part-time.

The University of Otago Bachelor of Science graduate says she is thrilled she can continue her study while pursuing her dream of representing her country in hockey.

“I really enjoy studying in the field of human health; in cancer and immunotherapy. It is very stimulating and immunotherapy is a hot topic at the moment with developments happening all the time.”

After graduating from Otago with her undergraduate science degree, Leah moved from Dunedin to do a Bachelor of Medical Science with Honours at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

The Bachelor of Biomedical Science with honours is a full-time year of research. Leah says this gave her the skills to do her PhD, and paved the way for this clinically relevant research.