Lumen - The University of Adelaide Magazine The University of Adelaide Australia
Lumen Summer 2014 Issue
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PhD breakthrough for brain tumour treatment

PhD graduate Elizabeth Harford-Wright is planning to hone her research skills in Paris after a breakthrough that has the potential to improve the quality of life for brain tumour patients.

Her three-year PhD study into neuropeptides has received widespread attention and will be used by other PhD and Honours students at the University of Adelaide to explore possible brain tumour treatments.

Elizabeth arrived at the University nearly 10 years ago with an interest in psychology before enrolling in a Bachelor of Health Sciences.

"I had access to a broad range of subjects and academics—it made me think about career paths that I would never have thought of before," she said.

Elizabeth's PhD focused on the relationship between brain tumours and a neuropeptide called substance P which is associated with inflammation in the brain.

"In conditions such as traumatic brain injury and stroke, it contributes to swelling of the brain and increased permeability of the blood vessels," says Elizabeth.

"We discovered that this peptide was increased in different tumour types so we thought that it might be playing a role in tumour growth."

Elizabeth used an antagonist drug called Emend®—normally used to help patients with chemotherapy-induced nausea—to block substance P.

"When we blocked it, it reduced the viability of these tumour cells and stopped the tumours themselves from growing. It was pretty exciting stuff," says Elizabeth.

"When you hear from people who are having a really tough time it feels pretty good that you're doing something that might help so many."

Professor Robert Vink, Head of School, Medical Sciences and NRF Chair of Neurosurgical Research, says Elizabeth's research is the first study to show what role the neuropeptide might play in brain tumour growth.

"This is a remarkable finding that has the clear potential to significantly improve the quality of life in brain tumour patients," he says.

"Our research in brain tumours is supported by funding from the Neurosurgical Research Foundation (NRF). Without this support, it would not have been possible for Elizabeth and the other young researchers in my laboratory to pursue these studies."

Elizabeth is looking forward to the next phase of her career—a postdoctoral position at the Institut Cochin in Paris. Her research will involve looking at molecular and cellular interactions in a type of brain tumour, glioblastoma.

"I think it's an integral part of a research career to see what skills and techniques they have in other places," she says.

"I am very excited as it will allow me to build upon the skills I developed during my PhD in an area I am very passionate about, as well as looking forward to the opportunity to live and work in Paris!"

story by Genevieve Sanchez



Below: Dr Elizabeth Harford-Wright
Photo by David Ellis


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