Highlights //

Kidney cancer researcher scores a first for New Zealand (2009)

In December 2009, Maurice Wilkins Centre investigator Associate Professor Michael Hay became the first New Zealand scientist to receive a grant from a leading international charity for funding cancer research.

Mike Hay Lab

Dr Mike Hay, a medicinal chemist at The University of Auckland, was awarded the £137,000 ($NZ 290,000) grant by the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). 

The grant will help Mike and his colleagues Dr Muriel Bonnet and Dr Jack Flanagan at the University’s Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre identify molecular targets in kidney cancer tumours that can be used to design more effective anticancer drugs. 

The research expands on Mike and Jack's work designing new drugs for kidney cancer using computational modelling, a project funded by the Wilkins Centre. 

Renal cell carcinomas (RCC) often do not respond to standard chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and an advanced RCC has an extremely poor prognosis. 

“Cancer is caused by changes to either the structure or activity of key genes that control cell function,” Mike says. “In many RCCs, the von Hippel Lindau (VHL) gene is inactivated. Without this gene, a relatively benign tumour can turn into a more aggressive, invasive tumour.” 

Mike, in conjunction with Professor Amato Giaccia and colleagues at Stanford University, recently discovered two new classes of molecules that can selectively kill RCC cells lacking VHL, either by causing the cells to “eat themselves” (by inducing autophagy) or by inhibiting glucose uptake and thereby cutting off their food supply. 

However, the exact interactions between these molecules and their protein targets are not yet known. “With this grant we’re using 3D computer modelling techniques to help us identify these targets, and show how potential drugs for treating kidney cancers might interact with their target molecules,” Mike says.

AICR Scientific Advisor Dr Mark Matfield said the charity supports only the very best funding applications, which it hopes will ultimately lead to powerful new treatments for cancer. “This is the first time we have given a grant to a scientist in New Zealand, and we believe this innovative work could produce significant results.” 

The project is supported by the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre and the Maurice Wilkins Centre. It involves collaboration with the Department of Radiation Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, USA.


Image: Dr Mike Hay (standing), Dr Jack Flanagan and Dr Muriel Bonnet.