Erin Paterson: creating a powerful resource

Erin Paterson: ‘Everything I do is working towards the ultimate goal of a better understanding of cancer’.

Erin Paterson coordinates the vital cell culture and tissue banking programme for the GMRI’s primary cell lines. After taking tissues donated by patients to the GMRI and growing cells from them, these cells are used for the GMRI’s research.

Erin says her greatest aim is to provide a resource and platform through which she can contribute to cancer research. Her work supports this both at the GMRI and in the wider scientific community, through collaborations with other researchers.

‘Everything I do is working towards the ultimate goal of a better understanding of, and new and effective treatments for cancer and other conditions,’ Erin says.

Growing cells to enable research

Erin’s work in culturing and banking cells plays a critical role in the GMRI’s broader research. The cells she grows become part of the GMRI’s tissue bank. They form the basis of much of our most important research.

To establish a primary cell line, Erin takes tissue that has been donated by patients. In the lab, she cultures small pieces to establish cell growth from the tissue. These cells are fed and observed regularly. Once significant growth is established, the cells are frozen with liquid nitrogen and saved in our tissue bank for future use.

‘Developing and working with primary cell lines allows us to create a powerful resource on which to conduct experiments,’ Erin says.

The GMRI’s primary cells are not an infinitely renewable resource, like some immortalised commercial cell lines. However, Erin notes the cell lines she develops could be considered as more accurate representations of the true biological variation found in patients’ cells and tissues.

‘Our primary cell lines are more likely to have a range of responses or sensitivities to a particular drug treatment as would be seen in the clinic. This helps us to identify patient groups which may respond or not respond to specific treatments.’

Researching which treatments work best

The second part of Erin’s work involves conducting research on cells taken from the GMRI’s tissue bank. This includes experiments such as determining the sensitivity of cells to particular drugs or compounds.

‘Drilling down on similarities and differences between responders and non-responders could inform which patients may gain the most or least potential benefit from treatment with the drug in question,’ Erin says.

‘This information may help us to develop criteria for selecting patients to participate in clinical trials, and eventually to select the most beneficial drug or drug combination for routine treatment.’

Other types of experiments that Erin conducts include analysing cell migration and invasion, and growing ‘tumourspheres’. These are solid, spherical formations developed from the proliferation of one cancer stem cell.

Erin’s journey as a scientist

Erin initially studied for a BSc at Otago University, majoring in microbiology and anatomy & structural biology. After graduation she spent time working with commercial veterinary diagnostics. Then from 2008 to 2016 she was based in the UK working at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Oxford University, where she focused on biobanking, clinical studies and assay development.

Erin joined the GMRI team in 2017. She enjoys the variety of work in her role. And she loves how she can try new techniques and ‘build upon the knowledge, skills and research of others here at the GMRI.’