Associate Professor Nuala Ann Helsby

BSc(Hons), PhD, FBPhS

Research | Current

"Understanding the inherited differences between individuals may help us improve the safe and effective use of medications and other therapies”.

How do your genes influence drug disposition?

Some people can respond well and others may have substantial side effects when given the same medication. Numerous factors affect how the body handles a drug, but one reason is the inherited differences in the expression of drug metabolising enzymes or drug transporters - this is known as pharmacogenetics. There has been a lot of optimism that sequencing the human genome will allow tailored selection of the appropriate drug at the right dose for each individual patient. However, many of the genes important in drug disposition are readily up- and down-regulated by either disease processes, the co-administration of other drugs and even dietary changes. Understanding gene expression and epigenetic regulation (pharmacogenomics) is an important and often overlooked component of “personalised medicine”.

Much of my research focusses on the pharmacogenomics of common cancer medications, because of the very narrow window between a safe and effective dose and life-threatening side effects. I also have an interest in how genomics may predict chronic pain after breast cancer surgery as well as the role of pharmacogenomics in treatments for autoimmune disease.

To do this type of research we need to determine an individual’s genetic make-up, to understand the complex processes underpinning drug disposition, accurately quantify drug levels in a patients and also have clinical information about patient outcomes. This requires strong links between the laboratory and clinicians. We have expertise in measuring drugs and their metabolites using analytical techniques such as LC/MS, genomics and design of clinical trials.

My research group includes:

Dr Kathryn Burns (Maurice & Phyllis Paykel Trust Research Fellow)

Dr Soo Hee Jeong

Umaiyaall Shanmugaraajah, research technician

We are also hosting Dr Edmond Ang (ADHB) a Clinical Research Fellow in Medical Oncology 

as well as postgraduate research students.


Postgraduate supervision

Current supervision

  • Daniel Chiang (PhD candidate)
  • Maia van Kan (PhD candidate)
  • Minghan Yong  (PhD candidate)

Co-supervision with Dr Kathryn Burns

  • Ursula Burns Maybury (MSc candidate)
  • Stephen O'Connell (MSc candidate) 


  • International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology (IUPHAR)
    • Drug Metabolism and Drug Transporter section: Vice-chair (2018-2022) and councillor on the executive board  (2014-2018) 
  • Member of the pharmacogenomics research network (PGRN) (2019- )
  • PharmVar (pharmacogene varation consortium)  Member (2019- present)
  •  Australasian Society of Clinical Experimental Pharmacology and Toxicology (ASCEPT)
    • Member of council (2017-2019)
    • Chair of NZ section (2017-2019)
    • Secretary of NZ section (Nov 2011-2014)
    • Comittee member BZ section (2020)
    • NZ representative, Pharmacogenetics Special Interest Group (2007-present), deputy chair (2020)


  • Review editor for Frontiers in Pharmacogenetics and Pharmacogenomics (2011-present)
  • Ad hoc reviewer for the international journals: Clinical Pharmacokinetics, Molecular Pharmaceutics and Special issue of Mutation Research - Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis, Chemico-Biological Interactions, Cancer Gene Therapy, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology, Drug Metabolism and Drug Interactions, Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology, Australian Medical Student Journal, European Journal of Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics
  • Invited member of the reviewer panel for Current Drug Metabolism and  Drug Metabolism Letters  (2012-2014)

Areas of expertise

Pharmacogenetics, human pharmacology, biotransformation, transporters and cancer drugs

Committees/Professional groups/Services


  • British Pharmacology Society
  • Australasian Society of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology
  • New Zealand Society for Oncology

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Helsby, N. A., Duley, J., Burns, K. E., Bonnet, C., Jeong, S. H., Brenman, E., ... Findlay, M. (2020). A case-control study to assess the ability of the thymine challenge test to predict patients with severe to life threatening fluoropyrimidine-induced gastrointestinal toxicity. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 86 (1), 155-164. 10.1111/bcp.14153
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Katie Burns, Soo Hee Jeong, Michael Findlay
  • van Kan, M., Burns, K. E., Browett, P., & Helsby, N. A. (2019). A higher throughput assay for quantification of melphalan-induced DNA damage in peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Scientific Reports, 910.1038/s41598-019-55161-3
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Maia van Kan, Katie Burns, Peter Browett
  • Alexander, S. P. H., Fabbro, D., Kelly, E., Mathie, A., Peters, J. A., Veale, E. L., ... Pawson, A. J. (2019). THE CONCISE GUIDE TO PHARMACOLOGY 2019/20: Enzymes. British journal of pharmacology, 176 Suppl 1, S297-S396. 10.1111/bph.14752
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Katie Burns
  • Burns, K. E., Allright, D., Porter, D., Findlay, M. P., & Helsby, N. A. (2019). A simple ex vivo bioassay for 5-FU transport into healthy buccal mucosal cells. Cancer chemotherapy and pharmacology, 84 (4), 739-748. 10.1007/s00280-019-03904-4
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Katie Burns, Michael Findlay
  • Chiang, D. L. C., Rice, D. A., Helsby, N. A., Somogyi, A. A., & Kluger, M. T. (2019). The Prevalence, Impact, and Risk Factors for Persistent Pain After Breast Cancer Surgery in a New Zealand Population. Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.), 20 (9), 1803-1814. 10.1093/pm/pnz049
  • Helsby, N. A., Yong, M., van Kan, M., de Zoysa, J. R., & Burns, K. E. (2019). The importance of both CYP2C19 and CYP2B6 germline variations in cyclophosphamide pharmacokinetics and clinical outcomes. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 85 (9), 1925-1934. 10.1111/bcp.14031
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Katie Burns, Maia van Kan, Janak de Zoysa
  • Duley, J. A., Ni, M., Shannon, C., Norris, R. L., Sheffield, L., Cowley, D., ... George, R. (2018). Preliminary Evidence for Enhanced Thymine Absorption: A Putative New Phenotype Associated With Fluoropyrimidine Toxicity in Cancer Patients. Therapeutic drug monitoring, 40 (4), 495-502. 10.1097/ftd.0000000000000532
  • Tucci, J. D., Pumuye, P. P., Helsby, N. A., Barratt, D. T., Pokeya, P. P., Hombhanje, F., & Somogyi, A. A. (2018). Pharmacogenomics in Papua New Guineans: unique profiles and implications for enhancing drug efficacy while improving drug safety. Pharmacogenetics and genomics, 28 (6), 153-164. 10.1097/fpc.0000000000000335


Contact details

Primary office location

M&HS BUILDING 503 - Bldg 503
Level 3, Room 302C
New Zealand

Web links