By Rosemary Rangitauira 16/12/2020

The allure of the white lab coat and inventing new treatments for people’s health inspired Dr Kimiora Henare of Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa to become a cancer biologist and biomedical scientist.

Kimiora resides in Tāmaki Makaurau – working at the University of Auckland as a research fellow in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

His love of science and the human body started young while growing up in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. “As a child, I read kid-friendly human biology books from the library. I think Mum thought I would become a medical doctor.”

Kimiora, who has tribal connections to Whangape in Northland, says he was always fascinated by science and biology at school and eventually drawn to focus on cancer.

“One of my favourite kaiwhakaako (lecturers) who inspired me is, Dr Graeme Finlay, a senior lecturer in scientific pathology. He drew me a map of all the research opportunities and the scientists who were leading research groups within the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC). That map ultimately directed me to Professor Lai-Ming Ching who was my supervisor for over 15 years through my masters, PhD, and post-doctorate, as well as provided me with teaching opportunities,” says Kimiora.

He began his journey with a Masters of Health Science in Cancer Research, under Professor Ching – a cancer immunologist – and an area that led Kimiora to his PhD of understanding the complex interactions between cancer cells and non-cancer cells that occur within the tumour microenvironment.

He’s also thankful to Professor Michael Walker and Dr Melanie Cheung for their support and mentoring.

“They have been influential in my decisions to pursue research by facilitating the opportunities and pushing me towards excellence including through a Tuākana mentoring programme.”

At the moment, Kimiora works in Auckland University’s Discipline of Oncology which fosters cancer trials including cancer genomics; and in the Office of the Tumuaki Responsiveness to Māori team. The team outlines the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences’ strategic direction for Māori Health as well as promoting Māori participation in the department and championing Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

An advocate for enabling better access for Māori cancer patients to care and medicine, Kimiora has been involved in many projects that have been led or co-led by Professor Cristin Print over the years including:

  • A nation-wide study to understand neuroendocrine tumours in Aotearoa where Kimiora helped to develop a roadmap for engagement with Ngāi Māori and published in The Lancet Oncology last year; and current programmes such as:
  • Genomics into Medicines which aims to create a multi-disciplinary network of scientists and DHB clinicians, who align around the common vision of improving patient care through genomics; and
  • Co-governed with tāngata whenua, the Rakeiora programme is a pathfinder that tests options to acquire, protect, use and store genomic datasets for healthcare research in Aotearoa.

This Hurricanes rugby supporter wants to close the gap between Māori and non-Māori cancer treatment.

“Cancer is a major health challenge for Ngāi Māori. Outcomes are often worse for tāngata whenua even for cancers where Māori have a lower incidence than non-Māori. Genomics-guided medicine is already in use around the world, and we’re seeing benefits to genomics-guided cancer care for some cancer types, by matching patients based on their tumours’ genomic signatures with drugs proven to be effective against those types of tumours.”

He wants the work that he and his colleagues do to help overcome inequities that exist in genomics that has either left indigenous peoples out of research or have raised questionable research practices by kairangahau (researchers) working in indigenous communities.

“The goal is to make sure that cancer care guided by genomics is a legitimate option for Ngāi Māori, rātou ko ngā iwi taketake puta noa te ao (and other indigenous cultures around the world).”

Kimiora highlights the importance of indigenous knowledge.

“Mātauranga Māori is a crucial component of ensuring equitable outcomes in health research – especially if led by Māori. Empowering Māori/indigenous leaders and scholars is what institutes such as Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga do and why they are so important.

“Ngā Pae has afforded me a range of professional development opportunities throughout my research career, not to mention brought together indigenous scholars from around the world to be inspired by and to learn from,” he says.

On a personal note, Kimiora is humbled Ngā Pae has established new summer studentships including in honour of his father, Mānuka Henare, for his contribution to Whai Rawa (Māori Economies) and another acknowledging one of his influential role models, Professor Michael Walker.

He also has the following advice for upcoming Māori researchers:

“Do what you love. Research has a lot of ups and downs, so it’s important to make sure you’re doing something that you find important and that doesn’t take too much effort to be passionate about it,” says Dr Kimiora Henare.