Matthew Munro: improving patient management

PhD student Matt Munro has identified new markers that could help the management of colon cancer patients.

For a former research technician, Matt Munro says the GMRI has been the perfect place to undertake his PhD. Matt is investigating the role of cancer stem cells (CSCs) and the renin-angiotensin system in colon cancer.

The renin-angiotensin system is a hormone system that can be controlled by simple medications such as anti-hypertension drugs. Published research has shown that patients on medication that inhibits the renin-angiotensin system have a lower risk of developing cancer and better cancer survival.  

Improving patient outcomes by identifying markers

The GMRI has found in its own research that CSCs express components of the renin-angiotensin system. Through his PhD studies, Matt hopes to find new combinations of ‘markers’ to identify CSCs in colon cancer, which may help prognosis and patient management, he says.

In the cells of the human body, proteins are the machines that make everything happen. Certain proteins are unique to each type of cell. And because these proteins can be used to identify unique types of cells, they’re called ‘markers’.

Matt’s research quantifies a combination of three markers. Using these markers, colon cancer from patients can be categorised as either low-grade or high-grade with very high accuracy.

‘Ultimately we hope these studies will lead to a novel approach to the treatment of cancer,’ Matt says.

Matt recently presented some of his preliminary PhD findings at the 88th Annual Scientific Congress of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, held in Bangkok. Matt’s presentation looked at the characterisation of cancer stem cells in colon adenocarcinoma.

Strong relationships build better understanding

One of the GMRI’s greatest strengths, says Matt, is the close relationship the Institute has with surgeons and other medical professionals. Matt believes this relationship has helped him, and other researchers like him, to develop an acute awareness of the importance of what they do. This relationship has also helped the GMRI’s researchers to better understand the real-life impacts that their work can have.

Matt adds that a second, equally valuable, influence on the GMRI’s research, is how doctors relate to their patients. The patients we work with provide us with the cancer tissue samples for our research.

‘The relationship that these surgeons and other medical professionals have with the people living with the diseases we study allows them to offer different perspectives and insights,’ Matt says.

From laboratory technician to PhD scholar

Matt has been a member of the GMRI team since 2016, when he started on a 12-month tenure as a cell culture laboratory technician. He’d been looking to pursue a career in research when he came across the vacancy. Matt’s contract was so successful that the GMRI offered him a scholarship, funded by the New Zealand Community Trust, to undertake his PhD. The team is now starting to reap the rewards of Matt’s investigations.