Young scientist Olivia Burn is confronting one of humankind’s biggest nemeses, from a little known lab in Wellington.

WORDS ANDY TAYLOR / PHOTOS GERRY LE ROUX + SUPPLIED

Tauranga-born-and-raised Olivia Burn had a pretty typical childhood: a father from Maungatapu, mother from Paengaroa, school days at St Mary’s School and Aquinas College, plus heaps of hockey along the way. Except, while most high school kids dreamed of getting a car, Olivia was dreaming of finding a cure for cancer. Now, as part of the team at Wellington’s Malaghan Institute – New Zealand’s world-leading research facility – she’s working on making it happen.

If that makes it sound like Olivia must be from some kind of uber-nerd science family, nothing could be further from the truth. “None of my family are scienceoriented: my dad works as an investment advisor; my mother is an apiarist and a creative type; and my siblings are in marketing and design. My grandmother’s sister is a science teacher but that’s about it! I just enjoy the problem-solving aspect of science, and it was promoted at our school, which is not often the case in New Zealand. We had great teachers and that really brought the sciences to life.”

“MANY PEOPLE WHO HAVE CANCERS REMOVED FIND THAT THEY COME BACK. WE THINK THE VACCINES WE ARE WORKING ON – BECAUSE THEY ARE BASED AROUND USING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM TO SEARCH THROUGH THE BODY AND KILL THOSE CELLS – WILL HAVE A REALLY BIG IMPACT ON STOPPING THAT CYCLE.”

So much so that a Bachelor of Science and an honours degree at Otago University followed, and then her first role that, in one way, took her right back to high school. “One of the reasons I got interested in genetics,” Olivia says, “was from reading a journal in my biology class in high school about a Bay of Plenty family who kept having family members die from stomach cancer. They were put in touch with Professor Parry Guilford in Dunedin and it was discovered they had a hereditary genetic mutation that was making them more susceptible to this type of cancer. It fascinated me that one tiny change in your DNA can change so much – not just in one person, but a whole family – and that knowing you had this mutation meant you could take steps to ensure the cancer didn’t fully develop. Then, while I was studying genetics, the opportunity arose to work in the Parry Guilford lab that I’d read about on alternative treatments for cancer – so it was very cool for me to have kind of come full circle on that!”

Closing that circle opened up a whole new trajectory, however. When new horizons beckoned, the Malaghan Institute in Wellington was recommended to Olivia and it has proven a perfect fit for a young Kiwi scientist we are going to be hearing a lot more from.

The Malaghan Institute is an independent research facility which focuses on cancer, asthma and allergy, infectious disease, gut health and brain health, but Olivia’s work is concerned primarily with finding new ways to combat one of humankind’s oldest afflictions.

“We’re looking at ways to reactivate the immune system so it attacks proteins that are specific to cancer cells and, in turn, the cancer itself,” she says. “It’s only been in the last few decades it has really been acknowledged that the immune system can play a major role in fighting cancer. We’re having these great new therapies coming forward that can, in effect, ‘wake up’ the immune system. With developments in technology, it has become easier to look more closely at both cancers and also how our immune system works. We know that, as we get older, our immune system weakens and we also know that cancer cells will always deliberately try to evade detection by our immune system, but we’re getting closer to being able change both those things.” “Many people who have cancers removed find that they come back. We think the vaccines we are working on – because they are based around using the immune system to search through the body and kill those cells – will have a really big impact on stopping that cycle.”

This is ground-breaking work, being done right here in New Zealand. But, like most of our greatest achievements, the Malaghan Institute flies under the radar, operating as a charity to fund the work it carries out. It is a research facility that punches well above its weight and is internationally recognised, but it’s largely unknown here in New Zealand. And the Malaghan Institute is not only undertaking research that could affect all of us, it is also helping to foster a new generation of young Kiwi scientists, like Olivia Burn, who is already tipped to do great things.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have had the great teachers and mentors I’ve had, and with that comes the responsibility to work really hard. But when you love what you are doing and have the chance to have a positive impact on a lot of lives, it’s really rewarding. Cancer has been a part of so many people’s lives, and we are all at risk, so it’s really exciting to be a part of the work the Malaghan is doing to take it out of our lives.”

Find out more about the Malaghan Institute at the annual golf tournament at Summer Hill Estate on March 6, 2020.