Unlocking tumours’ secrets An interview with Dr Ben Lawrence

Ben Lawrence.JPGAuckland Oncologist Dr Ben Lawrence has just returned from two years at Yale University in the USA, supported by a Murray Jackson Clinical Fellowship provided by the Cancer Research Trust.

During Ben’s time at Yale he studied neuroendocrine tumours – a type of pancreatic cancer usually occurring in the gut or the lung. What Ben learned is that each tumour is different, and that the best way to identify these differences is by examining every gene in every tumour.

Gene analysis is complex and demanding, but what was even more difficult in the USA was finding tumours to analyse. As Ben said, “that’s where the advantages of conducting clinical science in New Zealand becomes obvious. Lots of people at many levels must work together to create this kind of programme. The New Zealand culture of collaboration and fairness is therefore a genuine strength, and one that does not exist in many countries. Combine this with the original thinking and capability of New Zealand scientists, and you have the type of environment where real progress can be made towards understanding what makes these cancers grow. If you can find the pattern of gene changes in each person’s cancer, then you can choose a drug that attacks the cancer in the way best matched to that tumour, for that person.”

Ben has now returned as the Translational Medicine Trust Clinical Senior Research Fellow, on a new team of researchers that includes Associate Professor Cris Print and Professor Mike Findlay at the University of Auckland. This team will work with other doctors and scientists from around New Zealand to collect neuroendocrine tumours and unravel their genetic secrets.

As Ben says, “there is much work to be done, and the project is ambitious, but without the help of the Cancer Research Trust, starting this work would not have been possible.”

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