Professor Owen Sansom
Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, UK
Tell us how you decided to pursue a career in cancer research
Academically, I was good at biology but also keen on history, so spent a bit of time deciding which course I was going to do at university. I opted for Genetics at the University of Nottingham because the course offered a good mix of classic molecular biology alongside theoretical evolutionary genetics. From there I just became more interested in the topic as I learned more about it. As I moved from theory to practical science I became more and more engaged.
How did your early training shape your current research interests?
During my Master’s degree I worked in labs that were interested in apoptosis. At the time there was a lot of excitement surrounding this type of cell death, and I really wanted to learn more about the process and the signals involved. I ended up in Edinburgh for my PhD, working with Andrew Wyllie and Alan Clarke. Andrew is one of the people who, working as a pathologist at the University of Edinburgh, discovered apoptosis many years ago. Since that initial discovery, he’d done a lot of the molecular work behind several milestones, such as uncovering the role of p53 in apoptosis, and so it was very exciting to be working in his group. Alan was very much at the forefront of making genetic knockout mice and looking at how apoptosis affects carcinogenesis in vivo. In Edinburgh I started thinking more about how important this process is in cancer and how we can target it. These are big questions that remain largely unanswered to this day, and my group is actively working on them.
Was that your first foray into translational science?
I think we almost fell into translational work, as our models became good mimics of human cancer and we were very keen to manipulate pathways in vivo using available drugs, to help advance our biological understanding of the disease. The translational side of things was, and still is, very interesting for me, and a lot of our work is focused on trying to understand fundamental biological processes and then how they go wrong in cancer. Cancer, as a complex system to study, is really quite fascinating, and studies using protein inhibitors, for example, can give insights into the disease but also the physiological mechanisms in normal cells. The discovery of drug compounds to use in this kind of study has helped basic biology immensely, as well as driving translation into the clinic.
From a personal standpoint, what would you say your most exciting research breakthrough has been?
With science you have lots of highs and lows and you’re generally most excited about your most recent results. But, reporting the intestinal phenotype after APC gene deletion as a post-doc in Alan Clarke’s lab probably remains my most exciting result to date. We were the first group to delete APC in the intestine, and it was incredible to observe the robust, strong phenotype and then go on to characterise the pathways that go wrong. Within five days we had managed to completely rewire intestinal homeostasis. This work kind of founded my own lab as well as forming the basis of Alan’s lab for a long time.
We think collaboration is key in cancer research. Can you name some key collaborators or mentors you’ve worked with in your career?
I’ve been lucky to meet several inspiring colleagues, collaborators and mentors throughout my career. Alan Clarke was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He was very intelligent, very laid back, good fun and I was deeply inspired by his overall attitude. Alan has been a strong influence in my career. Sadly when he died last year he left a huge hole for all his colleagues, present and past. He is still very much missed and there are still many days when I think ‘I wish I could discuss this with Alan’. I have also done a lot of work with Doug Winton in Cambridge over the years. Doug’s approach is to do beautiful science, no matter how long it is going to take. He has worked out so many important questions in terms of intestinal stem cells, the neutral drift hypothesis of stem cells and also stem cells within tumours. He has established himself as one of the leaders in the stem-cell field. I always look forward to reading his work, and as a person he is also really nice and down-to-earth. Finally, my joint-chair for the 2018 NCRI Cancer Conference, Margaret Frame and Karen Vousden were very supportive when I set my laboratory up at the Beatson Institute. They really helped guide me through many of the pitfalls of setting up your laboratory. Also they set up an excellent collaborative atmosphere that really helped my group broaden its interests.
What advice do you pass on to young researchers hoping to follow in your footsteps? A scientific career is based on the research that you do and I think the important thing is to always keep the scientific question in mind and go where the data takes you. Don’t start with any preconceptions. No matter what happens, it is just very interesting to see how your story evolves.
How do you relax and have fun away from the lab?
Living in Scotland I very much enjoy going to the pubs and going for meals out. The scenery is wonderful, so I also like going for long walks. Although I get a bit tired of travelling because I do a lot for work, I do enjoy seeing new places and see the travel as something of a perk. So, a walk, a good pint of beer and then a holiday every now and again.