Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre

History of the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre


The Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) was established in 1956 by the Auckland Cancer Society (now Cancer Society Auckland Northland) as the Cancer Research Laboratory (CRL). Under the leadership of Dr Bruce Cain, the CRL undertook studies in seeking active anti-tumour agents from plants. Dr Cain's work was initially carried out in the School of Chemical Sciences of the University of Auckland. The research subsequently shifted to temporary quarters, firstly at the ex-army hospital at Cornwall Park and secondly to the DSIR Plant Diseases Division at Mt Albert. Discussions between the society and Professor Peter Herdson, foundation professor of the Department of Pathology in the University, led to an initiative to locate the CRL in the Pathology Building in the Medical School complex. In 1979, Dr Cain was made an honorary professor by the University and the CRL moved into its current location. An agreement was signed between the University and the society whereby the CRL was attached administratively to the Department of Pathology and a rental was paid to offset the cost of utilities and maintenance.



The Section of Oncology in the Department of Pathology was established in 1976 with the appointment of Associate Professor John Probert. In 1980 a radiobiology research project was instituted, with Dr William R Wilson appointed as a research scientist. Dr Wilson's work became very closely integrated with that of the CRL. Both Assoc Prof Probert and Dr Wilson were initially accommodated on the same floor as the CRL, but with the expansion of research staff, laboratory space became a key issue. The completion of the Oncology Centre at Auckland Hospital provided much-needed space, and in 1987 Assoc Prof Probert and Dr Wilson moved to the Oncology Centre, with the CRL occupying the whole of the first floor of the Pathology Building.


Further expansion of the CRL through new research contracts placed pressure on space. The Department of Pathology responded to the situation generously, and through the efforts of successive Heads of Department (Professors Peter Herdson, Jeremy Jass and John Gavin) the CRL was able to utilise Pathology Department space on the ground and third floors of the Pathology Building. During the 1980s and the 1990s, close relationships were developed with the Department of Clinical Oncology at Auckland Hospital, particularly through the clinical trials of the anti-cancer drugs developed in the CRL and with the Department of Pharmacology. In 1995 Dr Mark McKeage, a medical oncologist, was appointed to the Department of Pharmacology to support the development of both experimental and clinical research in Oncology.


Historic ACSRC staff photo

Following a review of the CRL in 1996, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Auckland Cancer Society and the University of Auckland, establishing the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) in January 1998 as an autonomous research centre in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences of the University of Auckland. The society continued to provide core funding, but CRL staff became employees of the University.


ACSRC chemistry lab

Since that time the ACSRC has grown rapidly from about 30 to more than 80 staff. It now occupies three floors in the Pathology Building, and comprises a multi-disciplinary team carrying out research on the treatment and causes of cancer. Members of the ACSRC supervise the work of a growing number of research students, and contribute significantly to University teaching. ACSRC staff have published over 1800 scientific papers and applied for more than 130 patents. 

ACSRC staff photo 2004

The long-term success of the ACSRC, due in no small measure to the core funding by Cancer Society Auckland Northland, has provided its staff with the opportunity to have long-term careers in cancer research in New Zealand. It has become one of few academic centres in the world with diverse staff skills and funding sources, a primary focus on drug development, and success in the development of innovative drugs to clinical use.