In a nation whose adulation of sporting success knows no limit, it is important to recognise extraordinary achievement in other fields — none is more important than medical science.

Today we tell of a Māori family's remarkable contribution to the discovery of a gene transmitting stomach cancer.

Gastric cancer was long known to run in families but it was not until the 1990s that advances in genetic technology made it possible to identify mutations associated with disease.

Until then, the McLeod family, whose best-known member today is pop star Stan Walker, had attributed the high toll stomach cancer was taking on them to a maketu (curse) they believed had been placed on the whanau.


But in 1994, afflicted members of the family met at their marae near Tauranga to discuss what could be done. One, Maybelle McLeod, applied for funding from the Health Research Council and started working with Otago University's Professor Parry Guilford.

The quest for the cause of their affliction was greatly assisted by the McLeods' ability to trace their whakapapa to 1915, and within three years Guilford's team discovered their problematic mutation.

With that knowledge, people in their family line can take a blood test for the fatal gene.
It is an achievement on a global stage as notable as any this country has achieved in sport. The McLeod whānau have demonstrated how a society built on family cohesion and ancestral knowledge is well equipped to contribute to genetic science and medical progress. All New Zealanders can take prid in their achievement.

About 500 families around the world have had their genetic susceptibility to the cancer diagnosed, including 20 in New Zealand.

The treatment is drastic — removal of the stomach, leaving the patient with the small intestine and a limited diet.

But Guilford hopes it will eventually be possible to remove the faulty gene entirely.
In a quietly clever little country, anything seems possible.