Dr Francis Hunter

Auckland Cancer Research Centre
Medical Sciences



Post-Doctoral Fellow

Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre
School of Medical Sciences

A Legacy of vital knowledge

For as long as Francis can remember, his dream has been to unravel the deep complexities of cancer and to develop better, smarter treatments to help patients. With a father and uncle who were both chemists, some of his earliest memories were formed in the laboratory, observing the magic transformation of reactive chemicals with their attendant display of fire, light and smoke.

When Francis was 6 years old, his mother took him to an open day at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, where he was fortunate to meet a true titan of medical research in New Zealand – Distinguished Professor Bruce Baguley. From the moment Bruce showed Francis pathological specimens of smoking-related lung tumours preserved after autopsy, he was captivated.

Cancer is a scourge. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote, “[cancer] cells look bloated and grotesque, with a dilated nucleus and a thin rim of cytoplasm, the sign of a cell whose very soul has been co-opted to divide and to keep dividing with pathological, monomaniacal purpose.”

There is no doubt that beating cancer is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. When accepting his Nobel Prize for the discovery of cancer-causing genes, biologist Harold Varmus said: “we have only seen our monster more clearly and described his scales and fangs in new ways – ways that reveal a cancer cell to be, like Grendel, a distorted version of our normal selves.”

“It is difficult to express the magnitude of suffering that cancer inflicts on our families and communities”

It was this vision of a grand challenge that inspired Francis to pursue a career in biomedical research. He graduated with a BSc in Biological Sciences from the University of Auckland, before completing Honours in Biomedical Science at the Liggins Institute, where his dissertation focused on the molecular biology of breast cancer.

In 2011, Francis began a PhD at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre under the supervision of a widely-respected scientist, Professor Bill Wilson. Francis’ doctoral research focused on the discovery and early development of novel classes of cancer drugs, which a particular emphasis on the use of genetic technologies to guide the clinical development of these drugs in human cancer patients.

His work took him to the renowned Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Canada, where Francis spent 6 months learning techniques not available in New Zealand at that time.

Francis defended his PhD thesis in his oral examination in 2014 and was placed on the Dean’s List, graduating in May of the following year.

During his postgraduate studies, Francis made a deliberate effort to engage in a variety of extracurricular activities. He served on the Velocity (then called Spark) organising committee, coordinating its education program then its entrepreneurship challenges. Together with Graeme Fielder, a friend and colleague from the Liggins Institute who subsequently undertook an MBA at Stanford, Francis was a winner of the international Breast Cancer Startup Challenge. The team gained access to proprietary technology from the US National Cancer Institute and formed a biotechnology company to advance its development. The team were finalists in the ONESTART healthcare accelerator at UCSF; later, Francis won the highly-competitive Merck Serono Innovation Cup in Germany.  The winning proposal was implemented by discovery scientists at Merck Serono, for whom Francis became a consultant.

After graduating, Francis was fortunate to win the John Gavin Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Genesis Oncology Trust, allowing him to continue his research at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, investigating new treatments for head and neck cancer.

Francis won a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Royal Society of New Zealand, in addition to a range of other research grants and prizes. These allowed him to diversify his research, and he is now working to implement new genomic technology at the University of Auckland and apply it to improve the use of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and targeted therapy in the treatment of a range of cancers.

Francis emphasises that he owes a great deal to the magnanimous support of his mentors, principally Professor Wilson. Francis is happily married to neuroscientist Mandana Hunter, who works at the University’s Centre for Brain Research. Both Mandana and Francis are hopeful of continuing their families’ legacies of excellence in scientific research.

Dr Francis Hunter