Associate Professor Sharon Pattison is an Upper Gastrointestinal Medical Oncologist Clinician Scientist with a particular interest in gastric cancer. She was recently the recipient of the Clinical Practitioner Research Fellowship allowing her to continue her study ‘Understanding the molecular subtypes of gastric cancer in Aotearoa New Zealand’.
In Aotearoa, Māori and Pacific populations have higher incidence rates of, and death rates from, gastric cancer than other ethnicities. We currently have limited understanding of the molecular subtypes of gastric cancer that occur in Aotearoa; this study seeks to understand the molecular biology of gastric cancers that occur in Aotearoa. The information from this on-going research will help optimise treatment decision-making for gastric cancer patients and facilitate research into gastric cancer treatments in New Zealand.
We caught up with Sharon to learn more about her research and what it means to her to receive this grant.
Tell us about your research with gastric cancer.
I co-lead a research laboratory based in the Department of Pathology at the University of Otago in Dunedin with pharmacist and cancer immunologist, Dr Silke Neumann. We focus mainly on stomach cancer and Silke also undertakes research on other hard to treat cancers. We have a focus on a protein complex which impacts survival in different types of cancer in different ways.
One of my particular interests is diffuse gastric cancer which is a type of stomach cancer that occurs more frequently in New Zealand than it does elsewhere in the world and isn’t well represented in the studies that guide what treatments we use for people with stomach cancer.
Diffuse gastric cancer has poorer outcomes than the other main type of stomach cancer. All stomach cancers essentially get lumped together and we treat them all the same even though we know they’re different. What we’re hoping to do through this research is figure out a bit more about what makes diffuse gastric cancer not respond so well to our current treatments, and make some new treatments to improve outcomes for people with stomach cancer.
What does it mean to you to be a recipient of this fellowship?
It means that we can do the research faster. At the moment I have one day a week where I’m able to focus research. This fellowship will allow me to more than double that and give us the ability to find out the types of stomach cancer that actually occur in New Zealand at a molecular level. We don’t know this at present because we don’t routinely do this type of molecular testing in New Zealand’s health system. Until we know what subtypes of stomach cancer we have in New Zealand, we don’t know what treatments we should be using here.
Eventually, as part of the project within the fellowship, we hope to be able to enrol people from different places in the country that don’t necessarily have the opportunity to participate in this type of research. Usually research associated with tissue collection is undertaken at a hospital that’s attached to a university. We aim to set up processes to enable a broader range of people and health care providers to participate in research that involves the collection of tissue.
How did it feel receiving this grant?
It’s really awesome. The project attached to the fellowship is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and with one day a week research you don’t have time to build the relationships needed to do this type of work. Without the fellowship I don’t think we could ever have attempted to run this project. To double my research time is really awesome.
How long have you been doing this research?
I came back to New Zealand in 2016 and Silke and I started our lab together in 2017 so our research programme has been running for about seven years. We still feel like we are just getting ourselves up and running. The fellowship contributes to the stability of our laboratory. It’s nice to know that the hard work that we’ve put into it has got us to this point where we can move ahead with our research programme.
How did you get into this particular area?
I did an undergraduate science degree as part of my medical training in the Cancer Genetics lab at University of Otago, Dunedin. This was the lab that identified the CDH1 mutation in Heredity Diffuse Gastric Cancer (HDGC) with the MacDonald whanau. My project was separate to that work but I saw, and continue to see, the importance of the ongoing relationships that develop from having patients and community members fixed in the research team.
Throughout my clinical training I kept wanting to come back to the laboratory and do more research. I had the opportunity to do my PhD with a stomach cancer lab in Australia while undertaking a clinical fellowship in an upper gastrointestinal cancer clinic. Since that time, this is what I have wanted to do. I remember so many patients who have had stomach cancer; you give them the gold standard treatment and they still have a poor outcome so there’s so much space to improve things.
Cancers from New Zealand patients are not well represented in the data sets from large international studies that describe the molecular subtypes of cancers, and because we’re such a small country, trying to involve us in clinical trials in a way that allows us to understand what’s best for here in New Zealand is really hard. If we don’t do the research here we will not get the information needed to improve the outcomes of patients in New Zealand, and we do have the ability to do the research that will identify the molecular subtypes of our cancers. If we can understand the types of stomach cancer we have here in New Zealand then we can much better prioritise which clinical studies we should be doing to try and improve outcomes for people.
I think it’s awesome that the hospital and my medical oncology colleagues are able to support me in my research. Without that support it wouldn’t be possible for me to do both my clinical role and undertake research. I am so very appreciative of that fact.
After work and your research, what do you do in your spare time?
I like to be out in the bush, walking, enjoying the fresh air and bird song. My Labrador is my usual walking companion, and is getting a little slower and more interested in sniffing as she ages meaning there is usually plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.