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Research projects supported by the Head and Neck Cancer Foundation Aotearoa



Assessment of patient care for head and neck cancers in Northern New Zealand: Data Extraction from the Innoforce Clinical database to match with requested data from the National Cancer Registry database, Ministry of Health


Head and neck cancer (HNC) is one of the ten most common malignancies in Aotearoa New Zealand. HNCs are a diverse group of tumours that range from oral cavity, lips, pharynx, nasal cavity & paranasal sinuses, larynx, major salivary glands and skin. The epidemiology of HNC has been little studied in New Zealand. Cancers of this region in the past were most often associated with alcohol and tobacco consumption, but over recent years human papilloma virus (HPV) has been increasingly associated with the development of cancer of the oropharynx such that now, HPV driven oropharyngeal cancer is the most common mucosal HNC. This project will assess the epidemiology of HNC in the Northern Region of New Zealand (which is made up of the areas served by Northland, Waitemata, Auckland and Counties Manukau District Health Boards) and compare these results with national data from the National Cancer Registry.


Combination of Re-purposed Drugs Strategy to Block Autophagy in Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck cancer is common in Aotearoa New Zealand, with 1500 new cases diagnosed each year. Unfortunately, there is limited effective anticancer drug treatment in New Zealand, and patients will only have palliative care to manage their quality of life. With new drug development's associated costs and timelines posing a hurdle, the alternative is to seek any medication already accessible in Aotearoa and demonstrate anticancer activity. Recently funded by the Head and Neck Cancer Foundation Aotearoa, our research investigates the combination of clinically available iron-chelating and anti-malarial drugs with head and neck cancer cells. We expect this exciting study will lead us to use a mouse model and cancer cells from New Zealand patients in a future study.  


Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald – Gillies McIndoe Research Institute


Uncovering Heterogeneity in Cellular and Molecular Landscapes in Human Oral Tongue Squamous Cell Carcinoma Using Digital Spatial Transcriptomics

Head and neck cancer is the 6th most common cancer in the world and are more common in men and in people over age 50. Tongue cancer is an aggressive cancer with low survival rate especially in patients with more advanced disease with metastatic spread. This research project aims to better understand how the spatial organisation of tongue cancer shapes metastatic spread. Our long-term goal is to develop a spatial signature that will serve as a prognostic tool for patient survival and recurrence of tongue cancer.

Dr Don Schwass – University of Otago

Gold Nanoparticles Efficacy against Oropharyngeal Pathogens in Oral Mucositis

Oral mucositis is a common side effect of radiotherapy for head and neck cancer, for which there is no effective treatment. It is often associated with severe pain, difficulty in eating and increased risk of infection. Additionally, patients often require intravenous nutritional support, therefore longer periods of hospitalisation and cost. Gold nanoparticles promise low toxicity and potent anti-inflammatory properties. They also significantly reduce biofilm formation as demonstrated in our previous study. This project aims to explore the biofilm inhibitory effects of gold nanoparticles as new treatment option on relevant bacteria, fungi and epithelial cells involved in oral mucositis

Dr Helen Brasch – Gillies McIndoe Research Institute


Cancer Stem Cell Subpopulations in Head and Neck Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma

Mucoepidermoid carcinoma (MEC) is the most common salivary gland cancer. The cause of MEC is unknown, and while some behave well, other tumours grow rapidly, recur and metastasise. Cancer stem cells, the proposed origin of cancer have been found in many cancer types. They drive tumour growth and account for recurrence and metastasis. This study aims to identify and characterise cancer stem cells in MEC using stem cell markers OCT4, NANOG, SOX2, KLF4 and c-MYC.

Dr Benedict Seo – UNIVERSITY OF Otago

Exosomal Biomarkers in Blood Plasma and Saliva of Oral Cancer Patients

Exosomes are small nano-sized particles that have been shown to carry and transfer genetic and protein information from one cell to another. Cancer cells, including oral cancer cells, have been shown to use exosomes to communicate with and manipulate host cells. However, the precise mechanisms by which this occurs remain elusive. This research will investigate the differences in the expression of cancer-associated genes present in blood and saliva-derived exosomes present from oral cancer patients and healthy control patients. Ultimately, it is hoped that the results will contribute to the development of a non-invasive oral cancer-screening tests.




Cancer Stem Cells in Metastatic Head and Neck Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma


The project supported by the HNCFA has resulted in the identification and characterisation of cancer stem cells in metastatic head and neck cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma – an aggressive cancer. Findings of the research has been published in the international journal Frontiers in Oncology (click here) and is scheduled to be presented at the Australian and New Zealand Head and Neck Cancer Society and the New Zealand Association of Plastic Surgeons joint conference 5th - 8th August 2021 in Queenstown, New Zealand

Dr Phoebe Macrae – University of Canterbury

Optimising swallowing outcomes in head and neck cancer patients


In this project an honours student will complete a thorough review of international evidence to develop ‘best practice’ guidelines for optimising swallowing outcomes in head and neck cancer patients. The student will also document patient and care parameters that are known to impact patient outcomes. The project will involve liaison and collaboration with speech and language therapists, radiation oncologists, and surgeons, to ensure all aspects of patient management are considered. The student will then develop a retrospective study to enable evaluation of outcomes for patients who have undergone head and neck cancer treatment through the Canterbury District Health Board, by documenting the factors that need to be extracted from patient notes.

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