School of Medical Sciences

History of the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre


The Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) was established in 1956 by The Auckland Cancer Society 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 School of Medicine of the University, led to an initiative by Professor Herdson 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 Auckland Cancer Society

The Section of Oncology in the Department of Pathology was established in 1976 with the appointment of Professor John Probert. In 1980 a radiobiology research project was instituted, with Dr W R Wilson appointed as a research scientist. Dr Wilson's work became very closely integrated with that of the CRL. Both Professor 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 Professor Probert and Dr Wilson moved to the Oncology Centre, with the CRL occupying the whole of the first floor of the Pathology Building.

Dr W R Wilson

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 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 anticancer 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.

Dr Mark McKeage

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.


Since that time the ACSRC has grown rapidly from about 30 to more than 70 staff. It now occupies two 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 900 scientific papers and applied for more than 60 patents. The drug development work led to the development of the anti-leukaemia drug amsacrine, which was the first synthetic topoisomerase II inhbitor to be successfully trialled. Clinical trials began in 1978, and in 1983 it became available for the clinical treatment of leukaemia in adults. Three further topoisomerase inhibitors have been developed to clinical trial since then by the ACSRC, in collaboration with various partners: asulacrine (Sparta), DACA (Xenova) and XR-11576 (Xenova/Millennium).

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ACSRC staff

Learn more about Amsacrine

More recently, the ACSRC has focused mainly in three areas of research aimed at developing drugs inherently more cancer-selective than the topoisomerase inhibitors. One area is drugs that target the immature vasculature of solid tumours, limiting their blood supply and thus their survival. This has resulted in the drug DMXAA, which was initially trialled at Auckland Hospital in 2000, and is now being developed with the UK company AntiSoma.

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Learn more about AntiSoma

The second approach is to target the protein products of genes that are dysfunctional in cancer. A focus here is enzymes that comprise the growth signalling pathways in cells, and the drug CI-1033 (an inhibitor of the epidermal growth factor receptor) entered clinical trial in the US in 2000. This drug was developed in conjunction with Pfizer (Ann Arbor, USA), with whom the ACRSC has had a research collaboration for more than 20 years.


The third approach is to improve the traditional cytotoxic (or cell-killing) drugs, parcelling them up in a way that makes them more targeted to cancer cells, or less toxic to normal cells but released in the original potent form in cancer cells. There are several ways to do this, utilising specific physiological and genetic features of cancer cells, and this is a major current focus of the ACSRC.

While the society continues to provide core funding for the ACSRC's work, this is now supplemented by substantial academic grants, including The Health Research Council of NZ, The Cancer Society of NZ, The Auckland Medical Research Foundation, The Marsden Fund of NZ, The New Enterprise Research Fund of NZ, The Wellcome Trust and The US National Cancer Institute. Commercial contracts with a number of companies, notably Pfizer Global Research and Development, but also Seattle Genetics, Xenova, Auckland UniServices, Cancer Research Campaign Technology and others, have also become a major source of funding.


As genomics (defining genes and their regulation) and proteomics (defining protein structure and function) begins to dominate drug design, The ACSRC is moving to meet this challenge. It was recently successful as a partner in an application to set up the Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery at the University of Auckland. This will bring a closer relationship with existing bioinformatics, genomics and structural biology groups in the University of Auckland, helping to bring these skills to its drug discovery programme.

Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery

The long-term success of the ACSRC, due in no small measure to the core funding by The Auckland Cancer Society, 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