New professor to boost leukaemia research at Auckland

21 October 2013

One of the world’s foremost human geneticists and leukaemia researchers, Professor Stefan Bohlander, will be researching cures for leukaemia and other blood cancers at the University of Auckland.

Professor Bohlander is the inaugural holder of the new Marijanna Kumerich Chair in Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research at the University of Auckland’s Department of Molecular Medicine in the School of Medical Sciences.

The Marijanna Kumerich Chair is generously funded by her family in Auckland and is the focal point of the University’s new Leukaemia and Blood Cancer Research Unit, also supported by a $1.25 million donation from the Leukaemia and Blood Cancer Society of New Zealand.

Under Professsor Bohlander’s leadership, the unit will focus on innovative research into the causes and treatment of blood cancers and related disorders. It will become part of an integrated cancer centre at the University together with the Auckland District Health Board.

Professor Bohlander came to New Zealand from Philipps University Marburg inGermany where he was the Director of the Institute of Human Genetics.

After his medical training at Freiburg University, Professor Bohlander joined the laboratory of Professor Janet Rowley at the University of Chicago, who pioneered the study of chromosomal changes in leukaemia. He spent the next seven years in research in Chicago, followed by an appointment to the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Göttingen in his native Germany. In 2001 he was appointed professor of Molecular Haematology and Oncology at the University of Munich.

The University of Auckland’s leading zebrafish research facility was one of the attractions to Professor Bohlander choosing to work at the University of Auckland.  It is one of only a handful of such facilities in the world for molecular medicine research.

“The zebrafish is well suited for establishing leukaemia models. Even though mouse models of leukaemia are widely used in research (because as mammals, mice are closer to humans), they are also quite expensive to keep and it takes considerable time to establish a mouse model,” says Professor Bohlander.

“Smaller zebrafish, even though a little further away physically from humans, have the advantage of multiplying rapidly, and leukaemia models can be established much faster in zebrafish than in mice.  It is easy to breed thousands of zebrafish for use in cancer drug screenings.”

“In the last five or six years there has been a revolution in enabling technologies for the genetic analysis of cancers,” says Professor Bohlander. “This means much faster reading of the human genome that is faster and cheaper DNA sequencing. The cost of sequencing has come down over a million fold in the last decade.”

“Blood cancers often don’t show abnormalities using the standard chromosome analysis techniques, so it is only by sequencing the genome that you can find the mutations responsible,” he says.  “We are now bringing in next generation sequencing machines to read the genomes in a very short time, so we can see what is wrong and apply that to our treatment of patients.”

“Cancers are as individual as the people who have them, so there are millions of different types of cancers, including many different types of leukaemia,” he says.  “In the past we treated these different leukaemias with the same treatments. We now know that some of the leukaemia will respond to treatment x and others to treatment y. But we need to do more research to find out which cancers respond to which treatments.”

One of the projects that Professor Bohlander will work on, will look at drugs already used successfully for patients, and refine their use for particular leukaemia using the zebrafish models.

He is looking forward to collaborating with Professors Phil and Kathy Crosier and their team who have pioneered the use of zebrafish for genetics research at the University of Auckland.

“I expect to have significant collaborations with clinical colleagues at Auckland City Hospital and Starship Children’s Hospital, both in the Faculty and the University and this also fits with the proposed new links to form an academic health care alliance and integrated cancer centre with Auckland Hospital,” says Professor Bohlander.


For more information contact:

Suzi Phillips Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Communications The University of Auckland Email

Professor Stefan Bohlander