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Wednesday 10 November 2021 11:43am

In August this year, 15 early and mid-career researchers received an Accelerator Grant from the Division of Health Sciences.

These Grants are intended to enhance the career development of some or our extraordinary early and mid-career researchers. This was the first year these Accelerator Grants have been awarded.

Today, we provide more insight into the projects of recipients Dr Abigail Bland, Dr Linda Buss and Dr Arthur Morley-Bunker.

Abigail Bland image
Dr Abigail Bland

Dr Abigail Bland

Dr Abigail Bland is an Assistant Research Fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at Otago.

“I have always had an interest in cancer pharmacology after having many close family members and friends being affected by the disease. Because of this personal connection to the disease, it has made me want to study drugs that may aid in the improvement of both the quality and survival of life in cancer patients,” Dr Bland says.

This Accelerator Grant will be used to generate pilot data on the effect of the drug metformin in lung cancer.

Dr Bland's research allows a further understanding of the chemotherapeutic potential of metformin. This drug is already used in the clinic, for example in diabetes treatment, so if proven to be also effective in cancer treatment, it would bypass the need for safety testing. This would save time and money for clinical testing.

Dr Bland has recently published that metformin and a derivative of metformin (mito-metformin10) have cytotoxicity (are toxic to cells) in ALK+ non-small cell lung cancer. Metformin is used mainly to reduce the amount of glucose (sugar) the liver releases into the blood. Therefore, in her research she hypothesises that metformin may be able to deplete energy (ATP) production in cancer cells.

To test this, she will conduct a series of experiments that use glucose-free and reduced glucose conditions to determine the cytotoxicity of metformin in ALK+ non-small cell lung cancer cells, under conditions that are consistent with the in vivo (living) tumour environment. She will also investigate the actions of metformin on the mitochondria, which are an important part of a eukaryote cell and often referred to as the powerhouse of the cell.

Dr Bland is also working on research examining carbon monoxide releasing molecules in models of hypertension and myocardial infarction (heart attacks). In addition, she is assisting in projects involving combination treatments for ALK+ non-small cell lung cancer.

Dr Bland completed all her tertiary education at the University of Otago. She has a Bachelor of Science double majoring in Pharmacology and Biochemistry, and a passion for pharmacology drove her to continue within this department. She completed her PhD this year.

Read Dr Abigail Bland's profile

Linda Buss image
Dr Linda Buss

Dr Linda Buss

Dr Linda Buss is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Christchurch Heart Institute, University of Otago, Christchurch.

This Accelerator Grant funding is being used to generate pilot data for a new study that aims to identify an intervention to reduce the risk of a heart attack in patients receiving immunotherapy for cancer.

“This research is at the intersect of cardiology and oncology and is important to me because it is the first step on a study which I believe has real potential to help people long-term,” Dr Buss says.

“Immunotherapy drugs for cancer are relatively new (funded in NZ since 2016), and as such we are still learning about their long-term side effects. One of these is the acceleration of atherosclerosis (development of fatty plaques in the arteries), which increases the risk of a severe cardiac event such as a heart attack in some cancer patients.  This has only recently come to light as being a significant issue, and as such there are no established strategies for clinical management.”

The study will help discover the optimal timepoint to study this effect and then test the rate of development of atherosclerosis in subjects receiving immunotherapy treatment, and subjects not receiving the treatment.

Dr Buss is also currently working on a project to optimise a method to differentiate (transition) stem cells into heart muscle cells. These heart muscle cells will then be used as a model system to identify new biomarkers of cardiac ischaemia, a condition where heart cells do not receive sufficient oxygen. The aim is to use the biomarkers identified as clinical tools to identify patients who are at high risk of a future heart attack.

Dr Buss is Christchurch-born and bred. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Bonn in Germany before returning to Christchurch for her Honours and PhD studies.

Read Dr Linda Buss' profile

Arthur Morley-Bunker image
Dr Arthur Morley-Bunker

Dr Arthur Morley-Bunker

Dr Arthur Morley-Bunker is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Mackenzie Cancer Research Group in the Pathology and Biomedical Science Department at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

This Accelerator Grant is to help begin a proof-of-concept study to use digital pathology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) methods to detect genomic biomarkers in a cohort of New Zealand colorectal cancer patients.

“This study has the potential to enable advanced detection of patients with possible genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer, and patients who will respond to immunotherapies. Additionally, this study will provide a foundation for developing digital pathology and AI tools for other cancers and could potentially be used to assist with cancer screening programmes.”

Time working as a Medical Laboratory Scientist within a Cytology department deepened Dr Morley-Bunker's interest in the utilisation of image analysis techniques to better assist health professionals with the diagnostic examination of cellular and tissue specimens. He is also interested in using artificial intelligence methods to detect genetic as well as tissue specific changes within tissue specimens.

Dr Morley-Bunker is also involved in projects investigating the presence of a common virus known as cytomegalovirus in breast cancer tissue, along with characterising immune cell phenotypes (observable traits) within the tumour microenvironment of these samples.

Dr Morley-Bunker completed a Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Science (BMLSc) undergraduate degree at the University of Otago.  He then worked as a registered Medical Laboratory Scientist in the Cytology department at Canterbury Health Laboratories and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in BMLSc with the University of Otago, Christchurch. He has also worked as a registered Biomedical Scientist in Cytology at Northampton General Hospital, in the UK where he also completed a master's degree in Biomedical Science from the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

Read Dr Arthur Morley-Bunker's profile

Read the full list of Accelerator Grant recipients for 2022

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