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The power of connections – Dr Melanie McConnell

30 August 2013

New ideas and developments in science thrive when there are strong and diverse connections between people.

At the Malaghan Institute we see ourselves as part of a wider network of research. We bring our expertise in immunology to partnerships with chemists, geneticists, microbiologists and all manner of other research areas, both here and around the globe.

Dr Melanie McConnell’s research is an example of how this works. Dr McConnell recently moved from a role of Group Leader of the Cell Survival Research Group at the Malaghan Institute, having been awarded the position of Senior Lecturer in Genetics at Victoria University of Wellington.

Whilst she may have moved physically next door, Dr McConnell and her cell and molecular biology expertise are still very much part of the Malaghan Institute, as closely involved with our immunology teams as they ever were.


Dr McConnell joined the Malaghan Institute in 2006 and was instrumental in establishing the ongoing GBM cancer stem cell project, and the experimental procedures used in our recent glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) cancer vaccine trial.

“With many cancers, when someone has radiation therapy or chemotherapy, not all of the cancer is killed off,” says Dr McConnell. “In GBM, these surviving cells can be a very large proportion of the cancer.”

“Our research has focused on trying to understand why these particular cancer cells are so resistant to treatment. Our next challenge is to work out how to get around their survival mechanisms, in order to kill as many of the cancer cells as possible, without damaging healthy ones.”

“I'm very proud of our efforts with the GBM cancer stem cell programme - when I joined the Malaghan Institute it was just an idea, but we now have an internationally respected research programme,” says Dr McConnell. “The linkages and collaborations we have set up across the country and overseas are really starting to pay off.”

"I am very grateful for the advice and encouragement I received from the Director and senior staff at the Malaghan Institute, as well as Associate Professor John Carter and his team at the Wellington Blood and Cancer Centre, in getting this programme off the ground. I would also like to acknowledge the many individuals, organisations and funding bodies that have helped fund this research - we couldn't have done it without your support."

At Victoria University, Dr McConnell’s research focus has not changed. “I will continue to work on the same questions with the same people,” she says.

The main difference is that Dr McConnell will spend half her time teaching undergraduate genetics and cell biology. “I’ll be working with other members of the Cell and Molecular Biosciences team at the School of Biological Sciences to develop a more cohesive genetics curriculum, integrating the genetics and cell biology disciplines.”

Dr McConnell says she enjoys teaching, seeing the connections form in someone's head when they figure out how a cell works, or what has gone wrong in a particular disease process. “It’s also exciting to see a student turn into a practising scientist, and I will have more opportunity to train the next generations of students.”

As well as the specialist knowledge Dr McConnell shares, there is huge potential for the connections between the Malaghan Institute and Victoria University to continue to grow, benefitting everyone involved. “My research group has already accessed the confocal microscopy suite at Victoria University, and in return we have introduced some new standards in cell culture here at the School of Biological Sciences.”

“We are also looking at applying genetics to Prof Graham Le Gros’ and Prof Franca Ronchese’s immunology-focused asthma and allergy programmes, and establishing a bioinformatics analysis pipeline,” says Dr McConnell. “In addition we hope to use new epigenetic techniques to look at different subsets of T cells and how they initiate allergy.”

We are thrilled that Dr McConnell will be able to use her expertise to inspire the next generation of Kiwi biologists, while working closely with our immunology teams. With more of these connections bringing together the best people from different fields, we will achieve far more than by working alone.