The first question people ask when given the news that they have cancer is usually “how long have I got?”. If they have a GBM brain cancer the answer can be even more devastating. GBM, short for Glioblastoma Multiforme, is the most common and aggressive brain tumour in adults and has proven to be very hard to treat. But giving a longer and better quality of life is something Auckland researcher Zoe Woolf is passionately
Having seen her aunt’s battle with cancer rob her of her quality of life in just a few months after detection, Zoe is striving to improve outcomes for GBM patients and is making significant in-roads early in her career.
“People with GBM have a very poor prognosis – normally the median survival time is about 15 months from diagnosis. This is quite rapid compared to a lot of other types of cancers,” Zoe reveals.
Research can mean trial and error, and learning along the way. Although she completed her Bachelor degree only recently, Zoe has already had early successful findings in her research into immune cells in GBM tumours.
“I was quite lucky that I was able to make sound findings early in my studies. It’s all about perseverance, because in science progress can often take years,” 22-year-old Zoe says.
“The gold standard for medical research is to find a cure. However, realistically for people with GBM, currently it is more about prolonging patient life, and their quality of life. In time, I definitely want to be able to go further with looking for a cure.
I have Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF) funding for three years to carry out this research, which holds a strong personal connection to me because of my aunt.” Zoe was about 10 when her aunt was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma that metastasised to her brain. There was little hope for treatment and she passed away two years later.
“It was a similar progression to GBM. I remember it not being a long process, and her health deteriorated fast. Seeing a relative go through something like that definitely brings a personal connection to research.”
Zoe’s work looks at two types of immune cells that should help fight GBM – microglia and tumour-associated macrophages (TAMs). Research literature documented that microglia may be good cells and TAMs the bad.
“These tumour cells are able to manipulate other cells around them into helping the tumour survive.
They hijack and influence these other cell types to help themselves divide, grow and spread throughout the brain,” she says. “The major obstacle has been in the inability to differentiate these two cell types. However, we have been able to show that the normal population of immune cells in healthy brain tissue is comprised of predominantly microglia. Brain tumours such as GBM, are comprised less of microglia, and around 80 percent of TAMs. “We want to investigate the two populations separately to see how these cells migrate, how they move through a tumour, how they eat other cells to get rid of them.” Based at the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Auckland, Zoe and her team collaborate with the Centre for Brain Research and Auckland City Hospital, receiving biopsies from patients undergoing brain surgery. “
We are honoured to be able to work with tissue from human patients, you know this is someone’s family that’s going through the same thing as we did. It really humbles everyone, and gives us a lot of drive, and motivates us to research,” she says.
“We get the tissue from these patients, and grow human microglia, in a dish. I don’t believe there are many labs around the world that have this resource. That these cells are an exact match to what’s actually in the brain is an extremely valuable resource for research.”
Zoe initially intended to be a doctor and was studying bioscience at the University of Auckland – however a lecture by renowned neuroscientist Professor Richard Faull sparked her interest in neurological research. With support from the AMRF’s generous donors, she was awarded a Helen Goodwin Doctoral Scholarship in 2018, providing a springboard for her research. “ The scholarship is amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do a PhD without the AMRF funding.
It’s promising to see progress so early in my PhD, and while a cure is a bit off in the distance, that’s definitely somewhere I want to get to in the future.”
AMRF Executive Director Sue Brewster praised Zoe as a very worthy recipient of the inaugural Helen Goodwin Doctoral Scholarship, adding that doctoral scholarships are vital in helping young researchers progress and prosper in their studies. “The Gooduck Charitable Trust wanted to be able to make a critical difference in an emerging researcher’s career. Helen Goodwin, the founder of the Trust, has a life-long interest in education and also appreciates the importance and scarcity of funding for medical research in New Zealand. “We’re so pleased Helen has chosen to partner with AMRF to support young and promising researchers at such important stages of their research career.”