Bequest aids bowel cancer research

A bequest to the Rotary Club of Wellington, NZ, has helped fund PhD research that could lead to earlier detection and better treatment options for bowel cancer.

New Zealand’s bowel cancer rates are some of the highest in the world. Unfortunately, it is also difficult to detect, with the cancer often not found until it has spread elsewhere.

But a young woman’s research can potentially help with earlier detection – and her research has been partially funded by the Rotary Club of Wellington.

In November 2017, the club signed a Relationship Agreement with the University of Otago School of Medicine in Wellington to offer a post-graduate medical research scholarship in the area of medical or health care for the elderly. This aligned with criteria set out in a bequest to the Rotary Club of Wellington known as the Salmon Trust.

A three-year PhD scholarship was advertised. Annabelle Greenwood stood out for her previous academic and research achievements. Under the guidance of Dr Kirsty Danielson, Annabelle’s topic for research focused on bowel cancer.

Although applicable to all populations, bowel cancer is particularly pertinent for people over the age of 65. This is because they are more likely to get it and less likely to survive.

The aim of Annabelle’s doctorate research was to explore the clinical relevance of specific genetic (novel small non-coding RNA) biomarkers in the blood plasma of people with bowel (colorectal) cancer, with the purpose of discovering that such biomarkers could be predictors of early diagnosis and/or responses to chemoradiation therapy. The secondary aim was to explore the use of newer molecular technologies (single-cell sequencing) to improve understanding of tumours.

Annabelle’s research began in early 2019. As with many research projects, there were challenges along the way – not the least of which was the COVID-19 pandemic. Then there was the closure of the medical school’s laboratories in 2021 due to poor earthquake safety ratings.

But she persevered and completed her research in early 2022. She submitted her thesis in January 2023, defended it in June 2023, and later that month was awarded a PhD. Each year along the way, she shared her progress with the Rotary Club of Wellington, communicating in a way even members without medical backgrounds could easily understand.

Rotary and better futures

Annabelle’s findings show good potential for early-stage bowel cancer detection. A four-panel, small non-coding RNA test was developed as part of her research and will eventually be taken forward for validation in a larger New Zealand clinical study as a non-invasive diagnostic and screening tool. It also shows potential for deeper understanding of bowel cancer tumours – and how to potentially treat them.

Was this a worthwhile scholarship for the Salmon Trust funds? The results speak for themselves.

The funding achieved two purposes: First, the research will have long-term benefits for bowel cancer screening and treatment. Second, it supported a young, up-and-coming scientist who will continue to work for many years to come – and will keep making positive impacts for older people and others.