We do ground-breaking work in areas you might not know about

Our research spans several medical conditions. Image byThisisRngineering RAEng/Unsplash.

While we are best known for our work on cancer, the GMRI team also carries out world-leading work in other fields.

Dupuytren’s disease is a debilitating hand condition that causes the fingers to bend into the palm. While surgery is the main treatment for Dupuytren’s disease, it recurs in up to 40% of patients within 5 years.

While doing an elective placement with us as a medical student from Auckland University, Dr Kirin Tan co-authored a paper titled The Role of Stem Cells in Dupuytren’s Disease: A Review. The paper analysed publications including our novel discovery of stem cells and the role of the renin-angiotensin system in Dupuytren’s disease, and how this may underscore a new treatment for this common affliction.

Our paper suggests a potential novel treatment by targeting the stem cells in Dupuytren’s disease by modulating the renin-angiotensin system, using simple oral medications.

The paper won the 2019 Best Oceanic Paper Award at the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ annual conference, the world’s largest annual plastic surgery conference, which was held in San Diego.

We’ve been recognised before for similar work

Working under the team at the GMRI led by Dr Swee Tan, summer student Nicholas On received a commendation from the International Dupuytren Society in 2018 for his paper Embryonic Stem Cell-like Population in Dupuytren’s Disease Expresses Components of the Renin-Angiotensin System.

Summer student Sabrina Koh won the Society’s 2017 basic research award for her paper Embryonic Stem Cell-like Population in Dupuytren’s Disease. Read this page to find out more about Sabrina’s work.

Nicholas and Sabrina are now house surgeons at the Wellington Regional Hospital.  

Investigating the molecular origin of diseases

The GMRI is investigating the cellular and molecular causes of disfiguring conditions and life-threatening diseases. Our research into these areas will help us gain a greater understanding of the causes of cancer, vascular birthmarks and fibrotic conditions.

Discovering how to make strawberry birthmarks self-destruct

A strawberry birthmark is a benign tumour that grows rapidly for about a year after birth. These disfiguring birthmarks affect 10% of children and can negatively impact their appearance, health, or even threaten their lives.

Traditionally, strawberry birthmarks were treated by harsh medications, chemotherapy, plastic surgery or laser therapy. These treatments are unpleasant and expensive, and can take several years.

Dr Tan and the GMRI team discovered the stem cell origin of strawberry birthmarks, and how these cells are controlled. They found that strawberrry birthmarks are caused by stem cells arising from the placenta, and learned how to manipulate these cells. They also showed that the renin-angiotensin system controls the stem cells.

The discovery of the stem cell origin of strawberry birthmarks and the associated renin-angiotensin system underscore the new effective treatment with propranolol – a low-cost oral medicine taken over months, rather than years. Children taking this treatment enjoy a higher quality of life and fewer side effects.

This work provides insights into other types of vascular birthmarks, fibrotic conditions and cancer, under investigation by the GMRI team. It has led to our identification of cancer stem cells that express the renin-angiotensin system in numerous cancer types. These discoveries form the basis of our current clinical trials to treat glioblastoma and malignant melanoma.

Read this page to find out more about our work on strawberry birthmarks.