The GMRI lays foundation blocks for budding researchers


Former GMRI summer students, Nicholas On (left) and Sabrina Koh

Gillies McIndoe Research Institute (GMRI) summer students Sabrina Koh and Nicholas On have been working on medical research that could have an impact on millions of people world-wide.

During their GMRI 2015/2016 summer studentship the pair was asked by Executive Director, Dr Swee Tan, and the Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Tinte Itinteang, to conduct research into the cause of a fibrotic condition called Dupuytren’s disease.  The debilitating hand disorder causes a person’s fingers to curl into the palm.

During their 12-week studentship the pair co-authored two papers. One, titled ‘Embryonic Stem Cell-like Population in Dupuytren’s Disease’ has been published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the most prestigious plastic surgery journal in the world. The other paper, ‘Embryonic Stem Cell-like Population in Dupuytren’s Disease Expresses Components of the Renin-Angiotensin System’ has been recently accepted for publication in the same journal.

Based on the hypothesis that aberrant stem cells are the origin of Dupuytren’s disease and that these cells are regulated by a primitive system, Sabrina and Nicholas began their investigation in the hope that their work will one day result in a novel and effective treatment for this unsolved medical problem.

“Dr Tan and Dr Itinteang were both there to support Nicholas and I. While we could ask them for advice, they didn’t spoon-feed us the answers,” Sabrina says.

“We conducted research and collated the data from start to finish. It was an amazing experience because they gave us the ability to take ownership of the project.”

For 20-year-old Sabrina, currently a third year medical student, immersing herself in a comprehensive research setting was a far cry from a chance encounter years earlier with Dr Tan.

“I went to a medical education conference in Dunedin where Dr Tan spoke about the breakthrough research being conducted at the Wellington-based GMRI,” she says.

“Until then, I didn’t really know what the team there did. But Dr Tan’s presentation struck a chord with me and I knew I had to be part of the GMRI’s pioneering research. Not many people my age get the opportunity to work alongside the team at the GMRI.”

Nicholas (21), currently a fourth year medical student, says his experience was invaluable because it broadened his knowledge in ways other studentships wouldn’t.

“There are other studentships but they don’t offer the same scope, support and guidance that I got from working at the GMRI. So I’m grateful for the opportunity; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

“I was encouraged to take ownership of the research and that was hugely empowering. Sabrina and I were targeting the cause of a disease that is currently poorly understood and treated; our efforts could possibly help to change the treatment options for millions of people.”