Cancer researcher wins 2018 Roche NZ Fellowship award

Dr Andrew Das of Otago University, Christchurch receives his award from Dr Roslyn Kemp and Roche Products NZ GM Ian Black.

University of Otago, Christchurch scientist Dr Andrew Das has won the 2018 NZSO (NZ Society of Oncologists) Roche NZ Translational Cancer Research Fellowship to learn techniques and bioinformatic analyses that will further his work as part of a research team investigating the role of epigenetics in cancer.

Epigenetics means “on top of” genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that have the potential to switch genes “on” or “off”.  These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells “read” genes.

Dr Das was announced as the winner of the award at the NZ Society for Oncology (NZSO) Annual Conference in Queenstown last night (August 24). This award, which has an annual value of $30,000, provides a unique opportunity for NZ cancer research teams to up-skill an integral team member, so that the team can work together more effectively and improve research output.

“Epigenetics are the markings that help cells remember their identity. These markings are signals that can be written, read or erased.  When the cells forget how they’re supposed to behave they can become dysfunctional resulting in cancer,” comments Dr Das.

Dr Das says there is growing interest in targeting epigenetic programming as a cancer therapy.  A pertinent example is the recent evidence showing that ascorbate (vitamin C) may be able to reverse epigenetic changes in a subset of people with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).

“We want to understand why these changes happen and whether ascorbate can help restore normal cell function in these cases,” he adds.

“The Roche Fellowship will enable me to train at other centres, particularly Auckland and Dunedin, but also overseas.  I am excited to learn the epigenetic techniques for this study as well as the bioinformatics required to analyse the data. There is already considerable information in global cancer databases, but it needs detailed analysis.”

“Initially, the research team will develop the appropriate human AML cell lines which will model the combinations of mutations found in patients. By upskilling, I will be able to characterize the cancer sub-types that are likely to respond to treatment. The data generated from this work will inform the development of clinical trials targeting epigenetic cancer sub-groups that are responsive to ascorbate,” explains Dr Das.

This study was inspired by the investigation of a patient with AML who responded to ascorbate treatment after failure to respond to chemotherapy.

Dr Das says: “Our research aims to ultimately develop a clinical benefit for cancer patients in New Zealand. I am very grateful to Roche NZ and NZSO for the opportunity to upskill in this way. I’m also grateful for the support and encouragement I’ve received from the research team.”

“This award offers a unique opportunity for the development of NZ research talent and expertise. With the current international interest in the role that epigenetics plays in cancer this award could not be more timely,” says Associate Dean Research and collaborator on this project, Professor Margreet Vissers.

“Translational research is most effective when clinicians and scientists work together, and we believe this project exemplifies that positive collaboration. Roche NZ’s support for local researchers is part of our effort to better understand, treat and potentially, cure cancer. This includes conducting more than 20 clinical trials in NZ investigating new cancer treatments,” says Roche NZ medical manager Dr Stuart Ryan.

“The winning project is an emerging area of cancer research which already has clinical significance in haematological malignancy. The award also seeks to recognise a ‘rising star’ researcher and we believe Dr Das is a very worthy recipient,” comments NZSO president, Dr Roslyn Kemp.  She says the award judges were two of the international conference speakers.

She adds: “Andrew is a clinically trained researcher who will now be supported to translate his clinical skills into a fundamental cancer research programme. He has an excellent team around him and will generate new and exciting results. The advantage of the NZSO Roche Translational Fellowship is the flexibility it gives the awardee to explore new ideas and initiatives and Andrew will be able to further both his scientific development and his translational research ideas.”