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In Focus: Unleashing the potential of molecular biology in cancer therapy

14 June 2023

Dr Andrew Wilson is bridging the gap between research and clinical laboratories, paving the way for advances in diagnostics and cancer therapy.

Andrew conducted his PhD with the University of Otago in the Weinkove Laboratory at the Malaghan Institute. His goal was to forge connections between academic research and techniques used in clinical diagnosis. In doing so, he has developed a new method to ensure the safety of cell and gene therapies, including the CAR T-cells used in the Malaghan Institute’s own clinical trial programme.

"My PhD aimed to merge academic and clinical practices, tapping into the potential of molecular biology to advance the safety of cancer therapy," says Andrew.

Armed with advanced molecular biology techniques, Andrew sought to understand the process of converting a patient’s own immune cells, called T-cells, into CAR T-cells. This involves inserting genes that allow the T-cells to be able to target cancer cells.

“Part of my research is trying to figure out how many genes are being inserted into each T-cell to convert them into CAR T-cells,” says Andrew. 

Current techniques for measuring this average the number of genes inserted across millions of cells, and do not interrogate each CAR T-cell individually.

“We need new methods to ensure that individual cells do not contain too many inserted genes, as this has the potential to cause unforeseen side effects.”

Andrew developed a method to visualise the number of genes inserted into each CAR T-cell, providing additional safety reassurance. This method could be used for other cell and gene therapies in the future.  

“I am also interested in the development of new techniques to rapidly detect mutations in the DNA of cancer cells, which could lead to quicker diagnoses, meaning patients can begin treatment sooner,” says Andrew.

“Cancer has unfortunately affected members of my family in various shapes and forms, so researching ways that we can stop cancer in its tracks feels like more than just a job.”

Over the next few years, Andrew aspires to guide the next generation of scientists. By sharing his expertise and valuable laboratory techniques, Andrew hopes to empower young minds to foster their own remarkable breakthroughs.

He offers advice to aspiring biomedical and cancer researchers, encouraging them to embrace challenges and setbacks as opportunities for growth. He emphasises the importance of finding personal motivation. 

"Let your 'why' be your compass during the toughest moments. Remember that each obstacle is a chance to learn and uncover new discoveries," says Andrew.

While undertaking his PhD, both Andrew’s mother and father-in-law were diagnosed with cancer.

“Mum had breast cancer but they caught that early and now she's recovered, but my Father-in-law had glioblastoma and unfortunately passed away about two months after his diagnosis in 2021,” says Andrew.

“Cancer has unfortunately affected members of my family in various shapes and forms, so researching ways that we can stop cancer in its tracks feels like more than just a job.” 

Andrew embarked on his academic journey at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington. Graduating with an undergraduate degree in human genetics, he continued to pursue higher education, earning a Postgraduate Diploma before beginning his PhD through the University of Otago. However, the seed that inspired Andrew's passion for research was planted long before this.

A decade ago, Andrew and his family relocated from Oxfordshire, UK, to Whangaparāoa, Auckland, New Zealand. Amidst moving across the globe into a place where the ground regularly shook and the weather was comparatively sub-tropical, Andrew started school at Whangaparāoa College.

“I remember having biology classes taught by Mrs Marsh-Smallman and I think it was her passion for teaching biology that really spurred an interest in the subject for me,” says Andrew.

“It’s when I first learned about how a tiny little mutation in your DNA code can cause such drastic health effects, including cancer, and that’s when I began thinking about this as a career path.”

He wasn’t the only one who was inspired by Mrs Marsh-Smallman’s biology class. His chemistry partner at the time, Yasmin Nouri, also got the bug and joined him on the journey into cancer research. Yasmin and Andrew both completed their PhDs on CAR T-cell therapy at the Malaghan Institute.

“It’s crazy to think that Yasmin and I ended up taking very similar paths alongside each other, culminating in handing in our PhD theses on the same day!”

Andrew's research at the Malaghan Institute is illuminating a path towards improving the safety of revolutionary cancer immunotherapies.

“Being able to contribute towards something that is improving the outlook of cancer patients who have been told that their cancer is ‘incurable’ is incredibly rewarding and gives me a reason to get up and go to work each day,” says Andrew.