Olivia completed her undergraduate study at the University of Otago, completing her honours research project in the Cancer Genetics Laboratory led by Professor Parry Guilford. Olivia is now completing her PhD as part of Professor Ian Herman’s Cancer Immunotherapy programme at the Malaghan Institute, which is funded by the University of Otago.
I am interested in research that helps to understand the role the immune system plays in cancer. Whether this is how the immune system prevents cancer in healthy patients, how tumours dampen the immune system and ultimately how we can manipulate the immune systems and direct its attention back towards cancerous cells.
Breast cancer is New Zealand’s third most common form of cancer, accounting for more than 600 deaths each year. Unfortunately, the majority of these deaths are due to breast cancer cells metastasising to other tissues. In an attempt to address this urgent need for treatments, my PhD is focused on determining the role of the immune system in providing long-term protection from metastases.
My research utilises vaccines that are designed to activate innate-like T cells such as NKT cells and gamma delta T cells to assess the different ways these cell types can participate in generating anti-tumour immune responses.
These cell types play a role in maintaining the status quo in healthy humans. They do this by reacting to stress signals released from compromised dying cells, allowing them to activate appropriate immune pathways to ensure other compromised cells are taken care of. With my research I am interested in whether vaccines containing stress-inducing compounds can lead to specific activation of these innate-like T cells and gain their help in generating a strong anti-tumour immune responses.
Another aspect I am investigating is whether our vaccines can help prevent the spread of cancer to multiple organs. As this spread, termed metastasis, accounts for the majority of cancer-related deaths, new therapies to prevent this are urgently needed. One of the most common cancers New Zealanders suffer from is breast cancer. Therefore, I am currently developing a model at the Malaghan to investigate if our vaccines can prevent the spread of cancer from the initial breast site to multiple other organs.