Talented young researchers at frontier of medicinal chemistry
The cancer treatments of tomorrow are being studied today by two young scientists who each receive one of the country’s
most prestigious awards, a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Dr Emma Davison and Dr Lisa Pilkington from the University of Auckland’s School of Chemical Sciences are at the
forefront of cancer therapy development.
Dr Davison’s work is in one of the breakthrough areas in cancer treatment; immunotherapy. Immunotherapy works by using
the bodies’ white blood cells to recognise cancer cells so that the patient’s own immune system can seek out and destroy
them. But the immune system is not very good at doing this by itself, and needs to be stimulated using vaccines.
In the most advanced area of cancer immunotherapy, these vaccines can be personalised so that the patient’s immune
system is instructed to kill a specific type of cancer but currently they take on average 3-4 months to design and
“That’s far too long for a newly diagnosed patient to wait for treatment,” Dr Davison says. “We need to dramatically
speed up the process so that eventually, the patient can receive their personal cancer therapy on the same day as their
She is working to achieve this using what scientists call automated flow synthesis, another leading discovery in
chemistry whereby chemical compounds are joined together in a continuous stream which is many times faster than
traditional ‘stop-start’ methods.
Traditional methods of making vaccines involve a lot of trial and error in the laboratory so they not only take a long
time but are extremely labour intensive. Dr Davison’s work with automated flow synthesis will not only produce vaccines
faster - in a few hours - but will also be cheaper, reduce chemical waste, and is able to incorporate computers and
“Automated flow synthesis is a very exciting area of chemistry and I believe it has huge potential in the future to help
with the rapid discovery and delivery of new drugs,” Dr Davison says. “I’m incredibly grateful to be given the
opportunity through a Rutherford Fellowship to focus on this research.”
Dr Pilkington’s work is also in medicinal chemistry but at the forefront of new drug discovery. She is utilising some of
the newest statistical technologies to increase the efficiency of one of the key processes in drug development, creating
a quantitative structure-activity relationship or QSAR.
A QSAR is the relationship between the structure of a chemical compound and its biological activity and is essentially a
representation of the way chemical compounds interact with living matter. Understanding a QSAR and using it to optimise
biological activity of a chemical compound is at the core of developing new drugs that have the desired effect in
Using machine learning techniques and R, a statistical software programme first developed at the University of Auckland,
Dr Pilkington’s work will incorporate features into the QSAR process that haven’t been applied to the problem before and
which should help make drug discovery much more efficient, saving both time and money. This could mean that new drugs
are discovered and get to patients far faster that they currently do.
“The new methodology will create a new tool to bring about a paradigm shift in the way medicinal chemistry researchers
do their work and I find that really exciting and challenging,” she says.
“I am extremely honoured to be awarded this Rutherford Fellowship and am very determined to make the most of this
fantastic opportunity. I am delighted to be given the means to work on this research, it feels like such a privilege.”
Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships provide up to $170,000 over two years to allow researchers to do
full-time research and are administered by the New Zealand Royal Society Te Apārangi.