Alice Chibnall

Researcher, Gillies McIndoe Research Institute - Wellington, New Zealand

Key Info

  • Master of Science
  • Biological Sciences

After completing a Master of Science in biological sciences (with first class honours) at the University of Waikato, Alice Chibnall made the move south from Hamilton to Wellington.

The move was for a job. A pretty good job at that – as a researcher at the prestigious Gillies McIndoe Research Institute (GMRI), next door to Wellington Regional Hospital.

Stem cell research

Named after Kiwi plastic surgery pioneers Sir Harold Gillies and Sir Archibald McIndoe, the GMRI is "committed to the relief of human suffering through fundamental research," and investigates cancer, vascular birthmarks, fibrotic conditions and regenerative medicine based on the role of stem cells in disease and health with the aim of finding effective treatment.

Alice's own research background is in stem cells and she works for renowned plastic surgeon and medical researcher Dr Swee Tan. Dr Tan and his collaborators at the GMRI have made discoveries that underscore the effective treatment of strawberry birthmarks, a vascular tumour that affects 10% of newborn babies.

The GMRI has now applied the insights it has gained from researching strawberry birthmarks to their research into cancer.

Curing disease

"The research is based on the concept of cancer stem cells being the origin of cancer and the finding that these cells are regulated by the body's in-built primitive systems," says Alice.

"Cancer cells are a population of cells within a tumour that can make copies of themselves and produce new tumours – metastases – and cancer cells that consist of the bulk of the cancer. These cancer stem cells are resistant to conventional treatment such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which could explain why some cancers recur after having seemingly gone into remission."

She says stem cell research has a variety of other applications. "Stem cells can become any type of cell in the body so, in theory, it could be applied to many diseases. If you could obtain a stem cell of your own, you could generate any type of cells from your own to body to replace what's missing.

"We're currently identifying the pathways that regulate these cancer stem cells and our aim is to control these with simple, effective and inexpensive medications that target these pathways."

Last year, the GMRI were awarded an international science prize for the identification and characterisation of cancer stem cells in tongue cancer and have now extended their work into different types of cancer. Their work is also backed up by researchers at Oxford University and Sweden's Karolinska Instutet who have also recently confirmed the existence of cancer stem cells in blood cancers.

Masters research at Waikato

Alice did her masters research with AgResearch, where she studied the genetics of bovine embryonic stem cells. She was first exposed to stem cell research during her Bachelor of Science (Technology) degree.

"I was placed at AgResearch during my undergraduate degree," says Alice. "I actually didn't think I had much of a shot getting into the programme, but my placement co-ordinator Sue McCurdy was really encouraging and thought it'd be something I'd be good at."

It was Alice's research talents that secured her the strongly contested position at the GMRI, and Dr Tan is happy with the work she's been doing. "We're really pleased to have someone of such high quality joining our team. Her expertise will add considerable value to our research programme."

In the family

Science runs in the family for Alice. Her dad is a biology teacher at Hillcrest High School in Hamilton where he also taught Alice.

"He's started saying to me that I'm at a level where he can't really help me anymore if I have any questions," says Alice. "But he's going to come down to the lab here to have a look around, so it'll be cool to show him what I'm working on."

As for the next few years, Alice says she plans to stay focused on cancer stem cell research.

"I see myself staying at the GMRI for quite a while. The team here believes that, with appropriate funding, a cure for cancer based on a completely different paradigm is achievable within the next 10 to 15 years."

Until then, Alice and the team will keep doing what they're doing. "I feel like we're really on to something, that we're definitely headed in the right direction."

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