Research Group Leader
Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
What area of cancer research do you specialise in and how did you get in to it? I focus on breast cancer and more recently prostate cancer. I worked on mutations in breast cancer for a year, when I was training, but I found a great PhD project on hormones and breast cancer and this got me interested in this specific field. I realised that the field needed new tools to study the role of the genome in this disease and this motivated me to do my postdoc with Prof. Myles Brown in Boston. Since then, I have continued on this area of work.
What inspired you to forge a career in cancer research? I loved science, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I initially wanted to be a marine biologist, but got interested in human health and I subsequently spent a year looking at human viruses, but following this, I worked as a technician for a year in breast cancer and found this fascinating. I knew I wanted to be a molecular biologist but wasn’t sure where to apply this, but as soon as I was embedded in a breast cancer lab, I immediately knew this was the right fit for me and I knew that my work could have an impact in this area of research.
What have you been working on most recently? We know that estrogen receptor (ER) is the key driver in most breast cancers and we have been studying the role of a protein called FoxA1 in breast cancer. FoxA1 appears to be essential for ER to function and we believe that it would be an excellent drug target for controlling hormone dependent cancer growth. One of the key areas of interest for us has been defining how FoxA1 functions, identifying what regulates FoxA1 and developing ways of blocking this important protein. This has involved developing methods to discover chemicals that inhibit FoxA1. A separate area of interest has involved understanding how parallel ‘related’ pathways influence ER. We know that most ER+ breast cancer cells also express progesterone receptor (PR) and androgen receptor (AR) and we are defining how PR and AR influence ER. This is important because we have existing drugs that modulate PR or AR and these drugs are safe, well tolerated and cheap. We are trying to figure out how to exploit these drugs for the treatment of breast cancer patients.
What do you perceive to be the biggest challenges in cancer research? The field of ER+ breast cancer faces a couple of big challenges. The first is that not all cancers are the same and we need to be able to understand what the different types of ER+ cancer are. A separate issue is the lack of good models for studying this disease. We need to be able to model the subtypes, so we can identify why these patients are different and how best to treat each subtype. Fantastic progress has been made on both of these problems in the breast cancer field, by labs such as the Caldas laboratory in Cambridge. Another big issue is that some of the most important proteins are considered undruggable. We need a radical change in how we develop drugs, so that we can start to target the proteins that are the best drug targets, rather than just the proteins that are easily druggable.
What do you consider to be the most exciting development in cancer research at present? Our ability to understand the genome and to gain insight into the different genetic factors that can contribute to cancer. This information reveals insight into what the specific drug targets are within different cancer subtypes and how to maximise existing therapies.
What has been your biggest achievement to date? Contributing to our understanding of how ER can regulate genes, which revealed a role for FoxA1 as a critical determinant of ER function. FoxA1 is proving to be an important factor in both breast and prostate cancer and we were the first to implicate this in these hormone dependent cancers.
About the Scientific Committee
What has been the biggest challenge of being a member of the Committee? Finding time that suits everyone for meetings! Trying to co-ordinate so many busy people is tough. Also, the meeting is very diverse so whilst my input might be useful for the basic biology aspects of the meeting, I feel out of my depth for certain topics, such as cancer prevention and patient support, which are clearly important components of this conference.
What have you enjoyed most about being on the Committee? Meeting people from different backgrounds who have contributed enormously to cancer research and patient care in the UK.
Will participants get the chance to talk with you and other members of the Committee during the Conference? Yes, we are always approachable and we hope that people will come and talk to us. In addition, we will be visiting the posters to meet the younger scientists to discuss their work.
How have the Committee chosen what will appear on the programme? By carefully compiling and discussing potential topics and subsequently identifying people that would be appropriate for specific session topics. This involves everyone providing input and the committee soliciting advice from external experts in different disciplines. Sometimes this can be tricky because we want people who are recognised and who are doing excellent work, but we are conscious that invited speakers should be good presenters who can convey complex information and inspire younger scientists.
Looking forward to the 2016 NCRI Cancer Conference
What are you looking forward to most about this year’s Conference?The excellent speakers and diversity of topics.
What is new for the 2016 Conference? An emphasis on newer and evolving topics, but also some very focused sessions on areas that have just started to come to fruition and are look exciting.
What do you predict to be the highlights of this year’s Conference?There will be some fantastic speakers who will stimulate conversation and hopefully change the way people think about their science. In particular, I’m looking forward to hearing about Rob Bristow’s and Reuben Harris’ work and hearing Kat Arney talk about cancer research in the media. I sometimes find that the best things to come from NCRI are the unexpected interactions with people who think about different things, but can end up being great collaborators, so it’s good to be open minded about what to attend.
What would you say to convince people to attend this year’s Conference? It’s the biggest and best UK cancer meeting, it covers the entire spectrum from basic biology to clinical findings and all the key leaders in cancer research in the UK will be there, as will some of the best international cancer researchers.
How will attending the Conference benefit students and those in the early stages of their career? It’s a great opportunity to hear about cutting edge findings, to see what the key areas of future research will be and to be inspired. Also the meeting is big, but not too big, so there are opportunities to meet the leaders in the field.
Why should researchers submit their work to this Conference? It’s the big one, with all the prominent cancer researchers from the UK. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see what direction your field is heading in and to hear (and meet) people that you might be interested in working with. I have met some of my best postdocs at these conferences. Also, you will get feedback from experts in your field but also from people who see the problem in a different way and can provide insight that might not be obvious when you’re so close to the work.
If you could sum up the conference in three words, what would it be and why? Diverse, impactful and cutting-edge (I’m cheating a bit with the last one, which might actually be two words!)
Just for fun
What has life taught you? Work with nice people and treat people well. We are all passionate about science, but things work so much better when people work because they’re inspired and happy and the best work environment occurs when everyone is open to discussion, feedback and collaborations.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work? My kids dominate my free time and we spend a lot of time with friends, but when it’s possible, I like playing guitar, golf and I am learning Taekwondo.
Where would your dream holiday be? Somewhere without email, but with lots of sun, nice water and good restaurants.
Describe yourself in three words. Optimistic, determined and friendly.
Name three things you would take with you to a desert island. Some sort of sound system with my music, guitar and books (and my kids of course)