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Video premiered 7 pm Thursday April 7, 2022

We hope you enjoy this video -- the first in our series this year, showcasing some of the best medical researchers in Auckland. 

Dr Emma Nolan is an internationally trained cancer biologist who has helped to discover potential preventative medication to combat breast cancer caused by the BRCA1 mutation, and also identified a special type of immune cell that supports the growth of breast cancer within tumours. Read more of Emma's research here at the prestigious scientific journals Nature Medicine and Nature Cancer about Emma's cancer research. 

Emma has returned to New Zealand upon receiving an AMRF Douglas Goodfellow Repatriation Fellowship to support her in establishing her own research laboratory. She will collect breast cancer samples from New Zealand women and investigate the link between breast cancer and obesity.

By creating a bank of tumour organoids using technology and skills gained overseas, Emma will provide access to a new tool for cancer researchers all across New Zealand. 

Prefer to read the transcript? Scroll down for the write-up.

AMRF was established in 1955 with a timeless mission – to improve the quality of life for all New Zealanders through funding world-class medical research. As the largest independent funder of medical research in New Zealand, we have awarded over $84,000,000 of funding over the last 66 years.  This funding extends across the spectrum of medical and health science research: supporting projects, researcher travel grants, doctoral scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships, and enabling advances in medicine that will change people’s lives forever. 

A generous benefactor funds all of AMRF’s administration costs, enabling 100% of all donations to go directly to medical and health research.

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Transcript of interview of Dr Emma Nolan (EN) by Hayley McLarin (HM)

HM: Hi, Emma, thank you so much for your time. I'm really looking forward to finding out a bit more about your research.


EN: Thank you. I’m really happy to be here today and I’m really excited to be back in New Zealand as well. I am a Cancer Biologist. I am the recipient of the AMRF Douglas Goodfellow Repatriation Fellowship and I recently started a breast cancer research group at the University of Auckland. 


HM: How long have you been a medical researcher? 


EN: I've been a medical researcher for just over a decade. After my undergraduate degree at the University of Otago, I moved to Australia and this was to do my PhD. I was looking at breast cancer prevention in high risk women who inherit the faulty gene BRCA1. After five years in Australia I then moved to London to do my postdoctoral study. I was still in breast cancer research but I was looking at more advanced cancer so understanding why breast cancers can spread and grow throughout the body. 

So earlier this year, after just under 11 years, I moved home to New Zealand and I am now starting a breast cancer research group at the University of Auckland.


HM: How important is it to bring back people with your expertise and knowledge and be researching in New Zealand? 


EN: New Zealand is, as you know, a small country and is quite isolated down here from the rest of the world. So I think it's incredibly important to have researchers firstly to have the opportunity to go overseas. It allows them to be exposed to new skills and technologies and to build connections with researchers across the world. But it's also really important for cancer researchers to come back to New Zealand and share what they’ve learned and really build the teams.


HM: So Emma can you tell me a little bit about how you got into medical research? 


EN: I started off studying medicine in Dunedin at the University of Otago and I really enjoyed it, but I actually found that the part I loved the most when I was studying medicine was actually the lab work. I really loved doing the experiments and so I actually ended up after about six months in medical school switching to a degree in biochemistry, and it was the best decision I ever made. 


HM: What made you move to Australia as opposed to staying in New Zealand?


EN: I moved to Australia because I was given this opportunity to work and to do my PhD at the Walter and Eliza Hall. And this is an institute in Melbourne. It's really world leading in cancer research and all types of cancer research but they had a really fantastic Breast Cancer Research Lab there. I knew that that would really benefit me long term when I returned to New Zealand to have this powerful connection with Australian researchers. 


HM: And was there a reason that you found yourself moving towards breast cancer research?


EN: Cancer is a devastating disease, but it's also fascinating how incredible the cancer cells are, how resilient they are, how they can grow in hostile environments. Breast cancer affects such a profoundly large group of women and their families that I was very interested in doing whatever I could to try and improve the treatment for these women.


HM: I understand that you were able to author some quite significant work.


EN: So in Melbourne, I was fortunate to have a really amazing discovery and this was that we identified an existing drug which could perhaps be used to prevent breast cancer arising in these women that inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation. So what this meant was this drug could perhaps be repurposed to prevent these women and buy them time so they didn't have to have surgical removal of their breasts. This drug actually excitingly went into clinical trial and is now in a phase three international breast cancer prevention trial. This is the first trial to directly look at prevention and BRCA1 mutation carriers so I'm very excited to see what the results of this trial will be. This was one of the really main and exciting outcomes from my PhD research.


HM: What was your next career move from Melbourne? 


EN: After I finished my PhD in Melbourne, I moved to London and this was to do my postdoctoral research at Francis Crick. The Francis Crick Institute is a world leading Institute and it was a fantastic opportunity for me to gain more skills and to prove my connections and collaborations as well. it's really one of the hubs of cancer research in Europe. 


HM: Tell me about your time in the UK.


EN: In my research in London we were looking at the effects of radiation therapy on cancer progression and this is because a large number of patients will undergo radiation therapy as part of their treatment for cancer. 

What we found was that when healthy tissues were exposed to radiation this actually triggers a regenerative response so the tissue becomes injured and then starts to become repaired. What we found was that the immune system when it contributes to this repair, the cells will enter the tissue and start to really try and repair the injury, we found that this inadvertently can support cancer cell growth. So cancer cells benefit from growing in a regenerative environment. 

This has quite important implications for patient treatment because we need to really understand this process and understand how tissue injury might actually fuel the cancer growth and this could impact on their treatment. 

Excitingly this research was published in a prestigious journal “Nature Cancer” and was actually featured on the cover. This was really exciting and it received some commentary in other scientific journals as well as features in news and social media. This was a really rewarding and exciting part of the research process and its great to see other scientists as well as the community really engaging and reading this research and I hope that one day that this may also lead to a benefit in patient treatments. 


HM: It's incredible what you've achieved in your career. What's made you want to come home?


EN: It’s always been my career goal to establish a research lab in New Zealand. But I wanted to wait until the right time until I felt that I'd gained enough experience overseas and established enough connections. It really just felt like it was the right time - I’d learnt a lot overseas; I’d met some incredible people and made some incredible connections and I really wanted to bring this home with me and really launch myself in the community here. 


HM: And what's involved? What are the first few things that you need to achieve? 


EN: So over the next six months, I have got quite a big job ahead of me. I need to set up the new lab. I need to order all the reagents, everything I’ll need. I need to have applications for my ethics approval, and then really excitingly, I need to start building up my team. I need to find some great keen students to join me and technicians to help me really set up and establish this research group. It's going to be a busy couple of months but I can't wait.


HM: And tell me what will you be researching?


EN: So in New Zealand, I'm going to be establishing new and innovative models of breast cancer research and this will be finding new ways in which scientists in the lab can really study breast cancer in a much more complex and sophisticated way. 

There is a technology called organoids which has really revolutionised cancer research across the world. This is where you take stem cells from a patient tumour or tissue and you use this to build mini 3D structures that highly resemble the organ from which they were derived. 


Tumour organoids are known as mini tumours in a dish. They're essentially mini tumours derived from stem cells that highly resemble the donor tumour from the patient from which they were derived. You can use these mini tumours to study cancer biology in a much more complex way, really mimicking the correct architecture of the tumour. Also, these organoids, they respond to treatment very similar to the original patient who donated the cancer cells. They really contain the same complexity in terms of genetic mutations. 


There will be two main phases to the project. The first phase will be establishing a collection of breast tumour organoids. I will establish this bank of organoids which will represent a sort of cross section of breast cancer in New Zealand. These will be used as a tool for my own research projects and also for researchers across the country to really advance breast cancer research. 


We’ll be taking breast tumours donated by women undergoing surgery and using these to generate organoids or mini 3D tumours in the lab. These will be used for this project as well as stored to use for future analysis.  At the same time we will also be taking breast adipose tissue, or fat tissue, and this is from women at a range of different BMI’s and this tissue would typically be discarded after surgery but instead we will be isolating the fat cells and growing them in the presence of these mini 3D tumours. 


This will help us answer the question of how cancer cells grow in response to a fat environment. How do they respond to being grown alongside fat cells and how does this fuel their aggressive behaviours? 


It's very well known that patients with obesity typically do much worse from cancer - they have larger tumour size, they have more advanced disease and they respond less well to therapy. It is not understood what the correlation is between how breast cancer cells actually interact with fat cells and how this really drives their growth. 


And what I hope is by developing this new model in which we can study obesity in the lab, this will identify new pathways in which we could perhaps treat patients and open up new avenues for therapy.

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HM: Thank you so much for sharing those slides Emma, I find it helps us understand the incredible work that you do. Tell me, you being home here means an awful lot to have that expertise back in New Zealand. How important do you think it is for New Zealand to invest in research and to have its place on the world stage?


EN: Absolutely. It's amazing to have the opportunity to go overseas and learn new techniques and be exposed to some incredible leading scientists around the world. It's also important that we come back to our country and we share the skills that we've learned overseas and we can really build some research groups at home. 


New Zealand might be a small country but we still contribute significantly to medical research and there are some really impressive platforms and scientists around the country who are really driven to try and improve cancer therapy and really improve the lives of people living with cancer. It’s a really exciting time for medical research in New Zealand and I’m really looking forward to being involved. 


HM: If AMRF hadn't been able to fund your return, what do you think you'd be doing? 


EN: I was the recipient of the AMRF Douglas Goodfellow Repatriation Fellowship, I think if I hadn’t been the recipient of the AMRF Repatriation Fellowship I would probably still be in the UK. Perhaps I would have looked at going back to Australia as well. It's really been a stepping stone that's allowed me to come home and to get started on building my research career.


The Auckland Medical Research Foundation is a fantastic organisation and both supports researchers overseas to come back, but it also provides an opportunity for us to interact and to connect with other researchers across the country. I think importantly that AMRF also allows New Zealand and Auckland in particular to really punch above its weight. It allows us to make research discoveries that can really contribute internationally to cancer research.


I think it's exciting to know that even a discovery that happens in Auckland in a lab here can really have powerful implications around the world and benefit both researchers but also cancer patients internationally. 


HM: What would you like to say to the donors who obviously are integral to AMRF being able to fund a wealth of research projects.


EN: I would like to say to the donors, just a big thank you for allowing me this opportunity to come home, to share my skills with other researchers across the country and really to begin my scientific career in my home country. Without your help, and without your support, it's really hard for the scientists to come back and establish research projects at home so I really appreciate it and I can't wait to get started. 

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