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Alumni Stories

Offering sweet relief for people living with cancer

Maddy Hunter didn’t know she wanted to be a researcher when she first started studying at the University of Canberra – she didn’t really understand what a PhD was or what it involved.

She just loved learning and wanted to understand how things work, and her passion for research was ignited in a Food Science unit undertaken while she was pursuing a Bachelor of Human Nutrition. Maddy particularly enjoyed the practical research exercises, where she could discover more about the properties of and components in food.

“I said to Nenad [Naumovski], my professor, ‘I really enjoy learning, I just want to learn forever’. He smiled and said ‘Well, let’s start with Honours’.”

After completing her Honours thesis on the composition of commercially available honeys in 2017, Maddy’s desire to research and dig deeper was not quite satisfied, so she progressed to her PhD.

“I can’t help myself, there are too many rabbit holes to go down!” she says, with a laugh.

“Being a full-time researcher – perhaps the first person to learn something – is quite a wonderful position to be in.”

Finding a topic to research can be challenging for PhD candidates, but when Maddy heard Clinical Assistant Professor Kellie Toohey, one of her supervisors, talk about a cancer patient’s painful mouth ulcers resulting from their  treatment, she had a lightbulb moment.

“I had heard that honey can help with skin wounds because of its antioxidant and antibacterial properties, so I looked into the background literature on mouth ulcers, and realised there was a gap in research on commercially available honeys.”

Cancer patients receiving radiotherapy and chemotherapy for head and neck cancer (HNC) have a near 100 per cent chance of developing oral mucositis (OM), because the treatments target rapidly dividing cells – which characterises cancer cells.

However, healthy cells lining the mouth are also rapidly dividing cells – which is why they usually heal from injury so quickly – so these healthy cells are also targeted and damaged during the cancer treatments.

Patients receiving radiotherapy or chemotherapy in other areas of the body are still at risk of developing OM, which can cause mouth sores, infection, bleeding, difficulty and pain when eating and swallowing, and sensitivity to food and drinks, that can significantly impact quality of life and wellbeing.

“I thought to myself – how amazing would it be to be able to tell cancer patients they can use the store-bought honey in their cupboard to help manage their OM?” Maddy says.

While there is research focusing on the wound-healing properties of unique honeys from across the world, Maddy wanted to study the honey people can buy from their local supermarket – both processed and raw varieties – because they are far more accessible. She purchased 42 honey samples from local supermarkets around Canberra.

Maddy couldn’t hold a clinical trial during the study due to the pandemic, so she collected saliva samples from research participants to better mimic the environment in the mouth. The experiments examined differences in the honeys’ antioxidant properties and pH in water and saliva, and how diluents can impact some of honey’s potential wound-healing properties.

“I collected about a litre of saliva in total from 15 healthy participants – they collected 10ml of saliva after they woke up in the morning, seven times. Excitingly, the results from the honey diluted in saliva looked even more promising than the samples diluted with water: the antioxidant properties were higher for honey diluted in saliva compared to the honey diluted in deionised water, suggesting salivary molecules could play a role in supporting honey’s wound-healing abilities,” she says.

Maddy’s research suggests honey would have to sit in your mouth for a few minutes for the antibacterial properties to start destroying oral bacteria, and for antioxidants to help stimulate wound healing. For cancer patients with OM, honey may help manage the bacteria in their mouth that changes significantly during treatment and can cause infections, and help inflammation and ulcers heal a little faster.

The research project was an enormous personal achievement for her, and looking back, Maddy is most proud of contributing to a space that could help people.

“I loved the human element of the research I did. Your PhD can consume your mental capacity – you’re regularly thinking about the research when you’re at home cooking or hanging out with friends. There were a few long, hard days but knowing that, hopefully, somewhere, someone will benefit from the research I did, really helped me,” she says.

Maddy’s PhD research was conducted in association with UC’s PACES Research Group.

“Being around people in the PACES group, who are passionate about patient treatment, was inspiring. It felt like I was part of something bigger.”

With her PhD complete, Maddy is now putting her research skills to work at the Department of Social Services in the Longitudinal Studies Team.

“I'm really looking forward to contributing to research from a different lens now, outside academia, with my role at the Department of Social Services,” she says.

“I always want to work in research that can be helping someone in some way.”

Words by Kailey Tonini, photo by Tyler Cherry.

In celebration and support of PACES Research Group and its globally recognised cancer care research focused on thriving, not just surviving, the University of Canberra is excited to introduce Thrive – A Celebration of Hope, a lunch at the National Press Club filled with incredible individual, inspiring stories, and a common goal of changing the lives of those impacted by a cancer diagnosis for the better.

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