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Dr Cunliffe's research focuses upon the discovery and validation of diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic biomarkers that will impact therapeutic decision-making, and improve outcomes for patients with breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Specifically, we are focused on selected disease subtypes that are clinically more aggressive, and often refractory to standard of care therapy.

Work performed in Dr Cunliffe's group was the first to identify the molecular genetic basis driving onset of Small Cell Carcinoma of the Ovary – hypercalcaemic type (SCCOHT), a lethal malignancy arising in very young women.  They were also the first to identify a unique clinical subtype of triple negative breast cancer which aberrantly expresses the androgen receptor, highlighting a novel context of vulnerability, sparking subsequent evidence-based patient recruitment into several clinical trials involving use of anti-androgens.

Dr Cunliffe's group leverages a combination of genomic technologies, laboratory models, and patient clinical specimens to dissect and understand the molecular basis of disease onset and malignant progression. Our strategies are translational in focus, with goals to progress diagnostic, prognostic and predictive measures toward improved patient care.

Currently, our lab is investigating the role of the TWEAK/Fn14 axis, an under-appreciated cell signaling mechanism aberrantly expressed in ¾ of all breast cancers, which we have shown to have a strong association with poor disease-free survival. Our lab is also part of a global consortium to define the molecular characteristics of Low Grade Serous Carcinoma of the Ovary (LGSC), a rare and poorly understood disease subtype with poor outcome from standard of care chemotherapy.

Key people

  • Associate Professor Heather Cunliffe
  • Leah Anderson, BBiomedSc(Hons) (Associate Research Fellow)
    Leah gained a Bachelor of Biomedical Science with Honours degree (1st class) from the University of Otago in 2021, majoring in the Molecular Basis of Health and Disease.  She is currently an Associate Research Fellow in the Cunliffe laboratory, and is working to publish novel research steming from her Hons thesis, defining the role of aberrant Fn14 expression in hormone receptor positive breast cancer. Leah is also embarking on new research objectives to define and exploit the molecular underpinnings driving Low Grade Serous Ovarian Cancer.
  • Lauren Over, BSc (MSc student)
    Lauren gained her Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Otago, majoring in Genetics, with a minor in Psychology. She began a Masters in Science degree in 2022 to investigate the role of DNA replication licensing genes in breast cancer progression, and the potential for the expressed products form these genes as novel targets for treatment. This is a joint project co-supervised by Associate Professor Louise Bicknell in the University of Otago Department of Biochemistry.
  • Elyse Ridling, BSc (MSc student)
    Elyse gained her Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of Otago, majoring in Genetics. She began a Master of Science degree in 2023 to investigate regulation of the TNFRSF12A gene, which is aberrantly overexpressed in the majority of invasive breast cancers, contributing to their malignant behaviour, including Epithelial to Mesenchymal transiiton.
  • Sarah McQueen (PhD student)
    Sarah is a PhD candidate in the University of Otago Physiology department with primary supervision from Professor Fiona McDonald, with cosupervision by Dr Cunliffe. Sarah's thesis investigated the role of the epithelial sodium channel (ENaC) in breast cancer, highlighting it's potential to influence positive outcomes for breast cancer patients.  Sarah submitted her thesis for examination in January 2023.
  • Jia Jian (Joe) Loke (MSc student)
    Joe is an MSc candidate in the University of Otago Physiology Department with primary supervision is from Dr. Adam Ware, with cosupervision by Dr Cunliffe. Joe is studying the effect of the Epithelium Sodium Channel (ENaC) in breast cancer. Joe submitted his thesis for examination in March 2023.

Past lab members

  • Joshua Harris, PhD
  • Adam Rance, MSc (Associate Research Fellow)
  • Maree Gould, PhD (Scientific Officer)
  • Simon John-McHaffie, MBiomedSc
  • Suzanne Musgrave, BSc(Hons)
  • Helen Hong, BBiomedSc(Hons)
  • Jack Harrison, pGDipSc
  • Mayur Azam, BBiomedSc(Hons)

Summer Students

  • Ruby White (BSc(Hons) student)
  • Vinesh Nair (second year Medical student)
  • Adam Rance (MSc student)
  • Caitlin McKenzie (BSc student)
  • Jacinta Van der Linden (second year Medical student)
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