Meet our pathologists — Dr Helen Brasch and Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald

Dr Helen Brasch, left, and Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald are the GMRI’s two resident pathologists.

Our pathologists often work behind the scenes, so we want to share more about their important roles in our research. ‘We are very fortunate to have in-house anatomical pathology expertise – among other things, an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the characteristics of the disease tissues we are studying – an envy of many biomedical research institutes’, says Dr Tan. ‘Our pathologists’ contributions are hugely significant and fundamental to our quest for a better solution to unsolved medical problems.’

Dr Helen Brasch has been a Research Associate with the GMRI since we officially opened in 2013. She has been a collaborator with Dr Swee Tan for over 20 years and her work underpins some of our most important research.

Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald joined the GMRI as a Research Fellow in September 2019. She enjoys working with a team of dedicated people who share the aim of improving the lives of people with cancer and other diseases. She takes satisfaction in knowing that she plays a part in that.

Dr Helen Brasch — Research Associate and member of the GMRI team since 2013

Dr Brasch has a long history of working with the founder of the GMRI, Dr Swee Tan.

Dr Brasch’s research at the GMRI focuses on vascular birthmarks and different cancers. Her areas of interest in pathology include breast cancer and skin cancer. She is a well-known expert in the pathology of vascular birthmarks and has worked with Dr Tan since 2002, contributing to many of the team’s publications.

She is a member of the Centre for the Study and Treatment of Vascular Birthmarks at Hutt Hospital, the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Team based at Wellington Regional Hospital, and an active member of the International Society for the Study of Vascular Anomalies.

Dr Brasch has a medical degree from Otago University. She specialises in anatomical pathology, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia in 1999 and a consultant pathologist at Hutt Hospital in 2000. She was the clinical head of Hutt Hospital’s Pathology Department from 2006 to 2014, before joining the GMRI as a part-time Research Fellow in 2013.

We ask Helen some questions about her work with the GMRI

How are you involved in the GMRI’s research?

Using a microscope, I check slides made from the paraffin-embedded tissue coming into the tissue bank, and select suitable samples for use in research projects. I also supervise students at the GMRI in using a microscope to examine immunostained slides of proteins in vascular birthmarks, fibrotic conditions and cancers.

I have expertise in histology and immunohistochemistry, two of the several techniques we use to study vascular birthmarks, fibrotic conditions and cancers.

What do you do as a pathologist?

At Hutt Hospital I examine tissue specimens removed during surgery, looking at them through a microscope. From these specimens, I make a diagnosis and provide more information to the doctors treating patients with inflammatory conditions and tumours.

Why did you want to get into this field?

I enjoy working with a microscope and being involved with research, in addition to my hospital work.

What’s the best part of working at the GMRI for you?

Being part of the team and getting the opportunity to see the slides of specimens that come through the tissue bank.

Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald — Research Fellow and Anatomical Pathologist

Dr Chang-McDonald Joined our team in September 2019.

Bridget studied medicine at the University of Otago, graduating with the degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in 1991. She then specialised in anatomical pathology and became a Fellow of The Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia in 1999.

Bridget went on to work as a consultant anatomical pathologist at Waikato Hospital (Hamilton), Diagnostic Laboratory (Auckland), Singapore General Hospital, and Hutt Hospital. She taught pathology, dermatology and surgical registrars during this time.

Bridget’s areas of experience include breast, skin, gynaecological, gastrointestinal, and head and neck pathology. In 2007 she became the lead pathologist for Wellington’s breast screening unit, BreastScreen Central, before taking a break from practising pathology to start a family.

We ask Bridget some questions about her work with the GMRI

What do you do as a pathologist?

Pathology is a branch of medicine that studies the nature, effects, causes and consequences of disease and therefore has an important role in research.

Anatomical pathologists examine tissue that has been removed during surgery. Once this tissue has been removed we select samples and make them into slides to examine under a microscope. We can then make diagnoses and provide more information such as prognostic factors for the surgeons and other clinicians, which helps to determine a patient’s treatment.

In my role at the GMRI, I select cases from the tissue bank and check the diagnosis by examining the slides under a microscope. Next we examine special stains done on the tissue, including markers we are trying to identify in our research. I help students and colleagues to interpret these slides and stains. I also help edit manuscripts and take photos for research projects, which are submitted to journal articles to show to our peers.

Why did you want to get into this field?

I am interested in how diseases affect us and how we can improve the outcome for people with cancer and other diseases. My pathology background allows me to contribute to the research being done at the GMRI.