Researching tongue cancer

Bridget sitting in front of a computer and microscope.

Meet our Research Fellow Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald, who’s investigating tongue cancer to better understand how it develops and spreads.

Dr Bridget Chang-McDonald, who trained as an anatomical pathologist, is leading a project on tongue cancer — an aggressive cancer. The team will study how the genes in tongue cancer behave. We’ll use spatial transcriptomic analysis, a cutting-edge technology that helps researchers understand diseases. We would like to thank the Head and Neck Cancer Foundation Aotearoa and Research For Life for their grants, making this research project possible.

The human cost of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer in the world. It’s more common in men and in people over 50 years old. It affects the front two-thirds of the tongue, and is one of the common forms of head and neck cancer.

Conventional treatment for head and neck cancer can impact patients’ quality of life more severely than many other cancer types. Currently, patients with cancer affecting the front two-thirds of the tongue are treated using surgery and radiotherapy, and sometimes chemotherapy. Removing the tumour by surgery can result in loss of function and disfigurement. Despite this intensive treatment, 50% of patients die within five years following treatment.

This study is small, but lays a foundation for big things

We have funding to analyse tongue cancer tissue samples from eight patients. We’re analysing these samples using spatial transcriptomics to see how the cancer develops and spreads.

With more funding, we can extend our study to investigate further samples for more robust results. So far, we’ve received $15,000 from each of the grant funders, which means we can start with a small number of samples.

Our long-term goal is to create a tool to predict the cancer’s behaviour and prognosis more accurately, and to tailor treatments to achieve the best outcome.

How we’ll analyse tissue samples of tongue cancer

We’re using spatial transcriptomics to measure and map the gene activity of different types of cells in each tongue cancer tissue sample. This will help us understand how genes behave in this cancer, and the ways they interact with each other. With this technology we can map where these behaviours and interactions occur.

Our research team will examine glass slides of tongue cancer tissue samples under the microscope. Each slide will have special stains that identify key cellular elements that we wish to study using spatial transcriptomics.

Then, we’ll send these samples to highly specialised facilities overseas so they can analyse the tissue sections using spatial transcriptomics techniques currently unavailable in New Zealand. Depending on the results from this analysis, we’ll do further work using the techniques we routinely use in our lab.

The tissue samples we’ll use come from the GMRI tissue bank donated by patients treated at the Wellington Regional Plastic Surgery Unit at Hutt Hospital.

Read more about how our tissue bank helps researchers