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Clocktower.Wednesday 25 July 2018 9:33am

Heather Cunliffe image
Senior Lecturer in the Department of Pathology, Dr Heather Cunliffe, is one of four researchers nationally to share funding totalling $720,489 through the Breast Cancer Research in New Zealand initiative for 2018.

A University of Otago researcher has been awarded $133,263 to investigate opportunities to halt the spread of cancer in women suffering breast cancer, thereby improving patient survival.

Senior Lecturer in the Deparment of Pathology, Dr Heather Cunliffe, is one of four researchers nationally to share funding totalling $720,489 through the Breast Cancer Research in New Zealand initiative for 2018. The initiative is a partnership between The Health Research Council of New Zealand, Breast Cancer Cure and the Breast Cancer Foundation NZ.

Dr Cunliffe says she is thrilled to receive the funding for her investigation which will be carried out over two years.

“This significant level of funding allows us to move our compelling preliminary observations forward into preclinical testing and leap-frog our understanding of how to best exploit a highly tractable target for future breast cancer therapy,” Dr Cunliffe says.

Breast cancer accounts for more than 600 deaths in New Zealand each year, primarily due to the spread of the cancer to distant organs, known as metastasis. The purpose of Dr Cunliffe's study is to improve risk assessment for metastasis at first diagnosis and define new opportunities to halt tumour spread.

In previous research, Dr Cunliffe and her team have identified a protein which appears to be a predictor for the development of metastasis in women who have breast cancer. Understanding what controls the critical steps in the metastatic process reveals opportunities for targeted treatment approaches to be developed which could halt the spread of cancer.

Health Research Council chief executive Professor Kath McPherson says this year's call for proposals was about identifying potential targeted and immune therapies for breast cancer with a focus on targeted treatments, aspects of early detection, prognostic and predictive diagnoses, or preventative therapies.

“Given how many women and families are affected by breast cancer, the Health Research Council welcomes this partnership with two of the leading charities advancing knowledge in breast cancer and looks forward to seeing the results of Dr Cunliffe's work,” Professor McPherson says.

Dr Cunliffe has devoted much of her career to investigating breast cancer. For 10 years prior to returning to the University of Otago, she worked in a research faculty at the Translational Genomics Research Institute, a not-for-profit biomedical research institute in Phoenix Arizona, where she headed the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Research Unit.

After receiving her PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Otago, she trained as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Cancer Genetics Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

The three other successful recipients of the Breast Cancer Research funding are: Dr Robert Weinkove, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research ($248,900); Professor John Miller, Victoria University ($100,000) and Dr Dean Singleton, University of Auckland ($237,494).

For further information, contact:

Dr Heather Cunliffe
Senior Lecturer, Department of Pathology
Tel 03 479 5060

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
Tel 03 479 9065
Mob 021 279 9065

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