Kapiti-raised scientist Sean Mackay and team target strawberry birthmarks, cancer

Scientist Sean Mackay, from Paraparaumu, working on nanotechnology to treat strawberry birthmarks.
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Scientist Sean Mackay, from Paraparaumu, working on nanotechnology to treat strawberry birthmarks.

A Kapiti man is among a team researching nanotechnology which could eventually be used to treat cancer. 

Sean Mackay is part of a team developing Squish, a treatment for strawberry birthmarks, which could be adapted to treat other conditions. 

Squish is a platform technology relying on nanoparticles squeezing between skin cells, delivering drugs into the tumour. 

A child with a strawberry birthmark.
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A child with a strawberry birthmark.

Strawberry birthmarks can be disfiguring or, in severe cases, life-threatening.

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Mackay said the treatment might involve administering the drugs through a cream or gel.

Dr Swee Tan.
DAVID WHITE

Dr Swee Tan.

"We are literally trying to squish drugs through the skin."

A nanoparticle's size relative to an average skin cell is like comparing a small child to the Sky Tower. 

Mackay, a Paraparaumu College old boy, is completing a PhD in chemistry, specialising in nanotechnology, at University of Otago.

He and university chemist Eng Tan were attracted to the work of Gillies McIndoe Research Institute (GMRI) executive director Swee Tan and his team, who have researched the manipulation of stem cells in tumours. 

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Swee Tan said Squish could be a "very significant" development, applicable to both skin and non-skin related conditions with the drugs changed.

"We'll be wanting to do the same to cancer stem cells as to strawberry birthmarks." 

Strawberry birthmarks are treated using propranolol, an ingested medication used to treat hypertension in adults. Side effects include a lowered pulse rate, fatigue, nausea and diarrhoea. 

In 2010 Ohakune mother Bridget MacLean began regularly making the five-hour drive to Hutt Hospital for her daughter Charley-Jean to have her strawberry birthmark treated.

It first appeared under Charley-Jean's right eye when she was six weeks old. 

"It almost looked like someone punched her in the eye," MacLean said. 

Five weeks later, it had grown to the size of an old 20-cent piece, and the lump on her skin was as big as a marble. 

The tumour pushed on Charley-Jean's optic nerve, threatening her sight, so surgery was ruled out. MacLean chose propranolol, then a trial drug, to treat the birthmark over steroids. 

A year later 90 per cent of the swelling had gone. Charley-Jean has no lasting effects.

The Squish project has enough funding to continue for three years, bolstered by a recent $25,000 grant from public research network KiwiNet. 

Mackay said early work had been "promising". Funding would be used to make the technology more stable, with a view to a release soon, he said.  

"Being able to get something through the skin in a non-harmful way is quite challenging ... skin is built to keep things out."

What is a strawberry birthmark? 

Also known as infantile haemangiomas, the birthmarks are vascular tumours that occur in about 10 per cent of infants, and take about six months to grow.

They stop growing spontaneously during childhood, and fully recede in 5-10 years, often leaving a fatty lump.

However, they can affect bodily function, become disfiguring and/or life-threatening.

 - Stuff

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