Elizabeth Dunn is researching new techniques to speed up medication discovery

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Originally planning to be a doctor, PhD student Elizabeth Dunn wanted to have a bigger impact– so she turned to cancer research.

Elizabeth grew up on a farm in Canterbury and completed her undergraduate degree at the local University. After time in the USA with her partner she is now back at the University of Canterbury doing her PhD to find new laboratory techniques that speed up medication discovery for ovarian cancer.

Elizabeth’s current research, aims to establish whether selecting cell lines originally derived from tumours according to their genetic makeup will help cancer treatment development.

Tumours arise from genetic changes that drive cancer development and growth. These changes may be different in each cancer patient, even when the cancer is of a similar type. Elizabeth will be testing two targeted treatment medications (PI3K/mTOR and ERK inhibitors) against a range of ovarian cancer cell lines with different genetic profiles.  She hopes this will lead to  more effective medication development by using representative cell lines with the particular genetic changes that s are being targeted.

The second part of her research will find out if the two medications (PI3K/mTOR & ERK) are effective treatment for ovarian cancer when used in combination. Cancers with the appropriate genetic changes to make them sensitive to a targeted medication often have, or develop, resistance to that medication through a second genetic change which can also drive the cancer growth.

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Elizabeth will test the ability of the medication combination to reduce cancer cell growth and survival in a range of ovarian cancer cell lines. This combination could be developed as an ovarian cancer treatment as well as other cancers with genetic changes that make them susceptible to these medications.

Elizabeth considers: learning as many different skills and techniques as she can, building connections and establishing networks, and most importantly, helping improve patient survival and quality of life, are the most important parts of her job.

She has always wanted to do something that helps people, as she can’t imagine anything worse than going through treatment which doesn’t always work. Elizabeth adds that it helps that she finds her research interesting.

This research grant from the Cancer Society helps Elizabeth in three ways:

  1. She can do a more thorough investigation. Lab materials for example antibodies are VERY expensive ($700-$800 for a tiny amount).
  2. She can travel to conferences and get her research out there. Establishing connections and collaborations, getting feedback and new ideas from other people.
  3. Testing on mice that she otherwise wouldn’t have done, which is helpful as it adds an extra layer of evidence showing that the inhibitors are working.

Ultimately, Elizabeth hopes to stay in cancer research and to stay in New Zealand, though she does need to go overseas to get her post doctorate.

In her spare time, Elizabeth enjoys hiking, running (especially with her dog), and making food for friends and family. She owns a 100+ year old house as well as an orchard so she also spends time renovating and gardening.

Author: Cecilia Wang.