Professor Merilyn Hibma
Several viruses are known to cause cancer. Much of our current understanding of the cellular processes of cancer comes from the study of DNA tumour viruses. One such virus is the human papillomavirus (HPV). This virus is fascinating as some types cause benign proliferation of skin cells (for example skin warts) whereas other ‘high-risk’ types cause cancer.
Understanding invasiveness key to successful treatments
Invasiveness is a defining step in malignancy and any treatment that blocks invasion and spread of cancer cells would drastically reduce cancer mortality.
Human papillomavirus provided us with an extraordinary opportunity to explore tumour cell invasion and to identify ways to treat it.
We are particularly interested in HPV type 16, which causes cervical cancer because of its health relevance for New Zealanders and especially Māori who have an extremely high incidence of this disease.
Virus disrupts defence mechanism
These viruses can disrupt a critical cellular protein that inhibits invasion in normal healthy cells. This may also impact on the immune cells in the skin that are important in initiating the immune response to the viral infection.
Our current research focus is to identify how the virus affects the suppression of invasion and to develop treatments to block it. Our interests extend to understanding how the regulation of this cellular pathway influences the immune response to the virus.
This research is designed to increase our understanding of the fundamental processes and treatment of tumour invasiveness and will impact not only on cervical cancer but also on other cancer types.