Kiwi breast cancer researcher developing ‘home-grown’ tumour models

Dr Emma Nolan is a breast cancer scientist who recently moved back to New Zealand after training and working in overseas labs for the last 11 years. During her PhD, Emma helped to discover a potential preventative medication, Denosumab, that could potentially prevent or delay breast cancer arising in high-risk women who inherit a faulty BRCA1 gene. This exciting finding led to the initiation of the first-ever international phase III breast cancer prevention study for BRCA1-mutation carriers, which began recruitment in 2018. See here for more on this.

Emma’s new research laboratory is based at the University of Auckland, where she and her team will be building a new 3-D ‘New Zealand-specific’ tumour model for testing and finding new effective breast cancer treatments.

Emma is keen to connect with the local breast cancer community. ‘My research is a tool for New Zealand, and it is important to me that I have a strong patient and community voice in my research design.’ she says. ‘I would also love to connect with Māori-patient breast cancer patient advocacy groups, to ensure my research is culturally safe and contributes to reducing health inequities in Aotearoa New Zealand.’

As part of her research, Emma will be collecting breast tumour samples donated by New Zealand women recently diagnosed with breast cancer who are undergoing surgery. These samples will be used to create ‘tumour organoids’ or ‘mini tumours in a dish’ which are very tiny three-dimensional clusters of cancer cells that are grown in the lab. Organoids behave just like the donor patient’s tumour, in the way that they look under a microscope, grow, and respond to cancer drugs. Therefore, they are a powerful tool for scientists to study cancer behaviour as well as test new treatments.

The use of organoids in research has dramatically increased around the world in recent years, and this technology has already led to significant breakthroughs in cancer research and drug discovery overseas. The use of organoids in New Zealand is, however, still in its infancy. Emma plans to generate breast tumour organoids as an exciting new tool for cancer researchers in our country. Importantly, since these organoids will be derived from tumours donated by New Zealand women, it will serve as a powerful population-specific resource to study breast cancer in our women, and enable new treatments to be developed and tested in models that are highly relevant to our unique population. Emma will shortly begin recruiting patients to participate in her study, beginning initially at Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) Waitematā, which will then be expanded to include Auckland and Counties Manukau. Overall, Emma hopes that her research will aid the development of new therapies to treat cancer that might improve the lives of future New Zealand women diagnosed with breast cancer.

If you would like to get in touch with Emma to find out more about her research or have any questions or comments, please reach out at emma.nolan@auckland.ac.nz

Emma’s new research is supported by the Auckland Medical Research Foundation and the Kelliher Charitable Trust.

18 August 2022

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