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Can we improve cancer research priorities and cancer immunotherapy in Christchurch?

A 2020/2021 Summer Studentship research project

Student: Millie Taylor
Supervisors: Associate Professor Gabi Dachs, Associate Professor Margaret Currie
Sponsor: Cancer Society Canterbury-West Coast Division


Every year over 20 000 New Zealanders find out that they have cancer, and over 8000 die from their disease. However, due to intensive screening and improved treatments, survival has increased significantly over the last twenty years. This improvement is due to cancer research, which is largely led by researchers, such as clinicians and scientists. Yet we don’t know what the research priorities are for those who live with cancer, the patients and their families.

One of the new effective treatment modalities is immunotherapy. This type of therapy ‘reawakens’ the patient’s own immune system, which then attacks the cancer, often leading to long-term survival, or even cures. However many patients do not respond to immunotherapy or have serious, life-threatening side effects. We are researching the reasons for this, by looking at factors in the blood from patients treated with immunotherapy.

Our aims are to:

  • determine the cancer research priorities of the Christchurch community who live with the disease
  • to recruit patients undergoing immunotherapy to study the reasons for severe side effects and for poor response


Our Cancer Research Priorities survey will give people living with cancer and their families the chance to express their views on the most important research topics in cancer. It may influence the direction of future cancer research and help direct our direct our research to better meet the needs of the people it hopes to serve.

Our research into immunotherapy for cancer patients will improve our understanding of the underlying molecular reasons for life-threatening side effects and poor response. With such data we can propose treatment modifications with the ultimate goal of improving the outcome for patients with cancer.


Part 1 will involve designing and administering a simple Cancer Research Priorities survey for both cancer patients and healthy volunteers (n=100) to gauge public knowledge of cancer research and determine their preference of topics to be studied. The survey will likely be paper-based and contain cancer keywords for the participants to select, as well as free text and guided questions.

Part 2 will involve recruitment of patients receiving immunotherapy at Christchurch hospital for inclusion in observation clinical trials. We have one trial ongoing that investigates the side effects of immunotherapy, and hope to be starting a second, parallel study that investigates vitamin C levels in immune cells in the same patients. From our past experience, we expect recruitment of up to 15 patients over the ten week study. The patients are asked to provide one or two small blood samples (5 ml each) and to complete a simple health questionnaire.

Student researcher’s component of the study

We are looking for an approachable and enthusiastic medical student to join our research group. The student will recruit participants and administer a Cancer Research Priorities survey, then analyse the data and assimilate this into a report. In addition, the student will recruit patients with cancer, obtain blood samples (phlebotomist will do blood draw) and rapidly transfer samples to the laboratory. The student would not be expected to carry out laboratory processing.

Student prerequisites

Medical student.