Thursday 17 September 2015 9:43am
Two University of Otago health sciences researchers have gained prestigious Royal Society of New Zealand fellowships, it was announced today.
Cancer researcher Professor Antony Braithwaite (Pathology, Dunedin) receives a two-year James Cook Research Fellowship, while Dr Logan Walker (Pathology, University of Otago, Christchurch) has been awarded a five–year Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.
James Cook Fellowships are awarded to support the work of researchers who are at the peak of their careers and recognised leaders in their respective fields. It will allow Professor Braithwaite to concentrate on a research project entitled “A strategy for targeting the cancer-associated protein YB-1 as a novel cancer therapy”. His funding package annually is $100,000 (excl. GST) and up to $10,000 (excl. GST) in relevant expenses.
Dr Walker’s Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, valued at $800,000 in total, will support research entitled “Preparing for the future of genomic medicine.” These Fellowships are awarded to New Zealand’s most talented early- to mid-career researchers to help foster the development of future research leaders.
“A strategy for targeting the cancer-associated protein YB-1 as a novel cancer therapy”
Professor Antony Braithwaite
Cancer is a problem in New Zealand and worldwide. Although some cancers are curable or manageable long-term, others remain resistant to treatment. These include aggressive breast cancers and melanoma, which have poor patient outcome. There is therefore a need for the development of new therapies. This project will explore a protein termed YB-1 as a potential novel therapeutic target for treating cancer. YB-1 is present at high levels in cancer cells, particularly in advanced cancers. YB-1 has also been shown to be required for cancer cell growth and cancer cell survival. Thus, YB-1 seems to be an excellent target for new cancer therapies, and the aim of this research is to develop a targeting strategy for YB-1.
Interestingly, the ability of YB-1 protein to cause cancer cell growth has been linked to a specific modification of the protein called phosphorylation (the attachment of phosphate groups). Professor Braithwaite’s research group has identified several different modification sites on YB-1 that are phosphorylated, which in principle could be blocked to provide additional opportunities for therapy development. With this project, Professor Braithwaite will investigate the role of the YB-1 protein in cancer growth in more detail. In particular, he will examine the contribution of each of these additional phosphorylation sites on cancer cell growth and survival, by inserting modified YB-1 protein molecules (which cannot be phosphorylated), into model cancer cells. Finally, upon having identified the phosphorylation sites that are most important for cancer cell growth, he will seek to develop small molecules with the ability to specifically block these individual sites on the YB-1 protein. Such small blocking-molecules thus have the potential to be developed into a new therapy for cancer. Ultimately, the development of new therapies as described will provide health benefits and may lead to commercial benefits flowing back to the New Zealand institutions involved in the research.
“Preparing for the future of genomic medicine”
Dr Logan Walker
Dr Walker is a molecular biologist who is interested in developing better methods for identifying families who are most vulnerable to genetic diseases, such as breast and ovarian cancer. He completed a PhD in breast cancer genetics from the University of Otago before moving to Brisbane to undertake a four year postdoctoral position at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. This research further developed Dr Walker’s research focus and expertise in the field of evaluating inherited genetic changes to determine their clinical significance. After returning to University of Otago in 2011, he was awarded the Sir Charles Hercus Health Research Fellowship from the Health Research Council. Dr Walker leads the New Zealand Familial Breast Cancer Study as part of large global initiatives aiming to utilise genomic medicine to reduce the impact of cancer.
The development of next-generation sequencing technologies over the past decade has revolutionised genetic testing of high-risk breast and ovarian cancer patients in a diagnostic setting. These technologies now offer increasingly affordable and more powerful approaches for obtaining detailed genetic information. In genomic medicine, this information is used to direct clinical care of patients and their families and has significant implications for disease prevention. While genomic technologies offer great potential to transform clinical care, they also present future challenges for patients and their doctors. Deciding who should receive genetic testing, and interpreting the test results, are two major dilemmas for health care professionals. Dr Walker will use his Rutherford Fellowship to develop better methods for identifying high-risk breast and ovarian cancer patients, and new approaches for evaluating the clinical significance of genetic changes. The new knowledge and expertise derived from this proposal will facilitate the development of genomic-based protocols to evaluate genetic changes responsible for other inherited diseases.
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