No stopping melanoma researcher


15 February 2012

When Stacey D’Mello was a five-year-old growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai) in India, she was diagnosed with Chlorodial Macular Degeneration in both eyes and told she’d eventually go blind. Twenty years on the young scientist is at the forefront of University research into melanoma.

“The Bombay optometrist told my mother not to bother enrolling me in primary school but instead put me in a school for special needs kids and make sure I had financial provision for the future, ” says Stacey recalling her early prognosis.

“But my mother [ Linda D’Mello, Administration Assistant at the Business School’s Graduate School of Enterprise] enrolled me in primary school anyway. During my first few years she would come in every day after work, get some poor students to stay back after school and write down all the notes. I knew what I’d heard. I just didn’t know what was on the board. Classes in India are big with about 70 to 75 kids.”

Linda D’Mello’s persistence undoubtedly changed the course of her daughter’s life. Today Stacey, 24, is in her first year of a PhD in Molecular Medicine at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences and is one of four winners of doctoral scholarships awarded to University researchers at the end of last year by the Auckland Medical Research Foundation. (In total $1,760,795 was awarded to eight projects, two postdoctoral fellowships and four doctoral scholarships across the Medical, Engineering and Science faculties.)

“Rather than thinking I can’t do something, I try and figure out how I’m going to do it,” says Stacey who has poor long distance sight and only partial sight in her right eye. This means she will never drive a car, can’t see numbers on buses, can’t see detail in people like a smile unless they’re close up; and uses a special laptop and software provided by the Royal Society for the Blind to zoom text up and down. During her undergraduate years studying for a BSc in Biological Sciences Stacey was supported by the University’s disability office with the provision of note-takers during lectures and the use of a photocopier; and special tests and exams where she was allowed extra time and the use of the disability room with special computers and software and a moveable table.

Now most of her days are spent in a laboratory in the Cancer Society Research Centre where “everything is on the bench in front of me and close up”. Her doctoral study is looking at glutamate receptors in human melanoma. “Glutamate is an amino acid used as a neuro-transmitter,” she explains. “It sends signals from one nerve cell to another in the nervous system. A paper in Nature recently described a particular sub-unit of the glutamate receptors that was found to be mutated in 33% of melanomas. We’ve got access to cell lines established from tumours from New Zealand melanoma patients so we’re trying to see what each patient’s melanoma cell is made of, and if these receptors are there. We’re also starting to treat cells in vitro (inside a test tube) with drugs that block the glutamate receptor.”

“Stacey is a wonderful student,” says Professor Bruce Baguley, co director of the ACRC and one of four supervisors on the PhD project.“We’ve being trying to understand acute melanoma for over 20 years and the cell lines we’ve grown from patients’ tumours is a big and unique resource for her to work with.

“This is a new area of study for us,” he adds. “No one has really characterised the glutamate pathway in melanoma so this is a real chance to understand what sustains and keeps signal molecules growing. “