I’m currently working on a new video for Cancer Research Demystified, where I’m going to attempt to answer this lofty question. What is the biggest challenge in cancer research today?
For the video, I’ll summarise a few different perspectives on this: the patients, the advocates, the funders, the institutions, the public, and the researchers ourselves. The most common answer so far is of course ‘there’s more than one!’ so I’ll cover as many as I can, and give my two cents on what could be considered the one single greatest challenge.
The NCRI cover their top priorities here – (of which there are of course more than one!) and you can see similar lists from many other groups. But what is the biggest one?! I’ve been asking around on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and I’ve gotten 24 responses so far, mostly from other cancer researchers, but some from patients & funders too. Before I compile, compare & contrast these, I wanted to ask you too – what do you think is the single greatest challenge in cancer research today? I’ll give you a head start by saying that the answers I’m getting are falling into two few common themes: biology & barriers.
Does one of these jump out at you as being a bigger challenge than the others? Do you have something to add? Comment below or DM me on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Reddit/LinkedIn and I’ll discuss your thoughts (anonymised if via DM) in our upcoming video!
A quick blog this week! I wanted to take a moment to introduce one of our favourite Cancer Research Demystified videos. Here, we give a tour of our lab so that cancer patients, carers, students and anyone with an interest can see what cancer research really looks like!
During our first couple of years meeting with cancer patients, myself and Hayley noticed that for a lot of them, their main frame of reference for what a science lab looked like was ‘the telly’. Whether it was CSI, or even a particularly slick BBC News segment, it was clear that research labs were expected to be minimalist, futuristic, and full of coloured liquids.
The occasional person would describe the opposite picture – dark wooden cabinets filled with dusty glass specimen jars, stained benches, blackboards, worn-off labels on mystery chemicals, and that strong, ambiguous, smell.
Of course, neither are accurate. Real cancer research labs are somewhat modern, sure, but even the most expensive and ‘futuristic’ equipment typically looks more like a tumble dryer than an interactive hologram, and though much of our equipment does use lasers – they are hidden deep inside rather than scanning the lab for spies! Blackboards are long gone, replaced with white boards, dusty unlabeled jars are disposed of due to strict health and safety protocols, although stains on benches….? Well, some of those remain.
We did initially face some mild resistance when we first attempted to film this video. A senior member of staff advised us that patients want the comfort of knowing that the best brains in the world are working on a cure, using the best technology and most impressive workspaces. That’s why, we were told, we need to clear out so much lab mess before the camera crews come in for a news segment.
But frankly – those perfect, sterile, swish labs are out there – if someone wants to see a scientist in a never-before-worn white coat pipetting some pink liquid into a plate, all they need to do is turn on the news. We wanted to show something different – and frankly, more honest – warts and all!
The video we ended up with is a little on the nose perhaps, but we felt it needed to be. We show the reality of what it’s like to work in a lab (well, close to reality anyway – we filmed after hours to avoid getting in people’s way, so it is unusually quiet). Some of the difference between day-to-day lab work versus office work are highlighted, such as not being able to eat, drink or touch up your make up within the lab, and having to wear appropriate PPE.
I came back to this video during lockdown because I missed the lab. I still haven’t been back in there, and I’m not sure when I next will be. Other people are back there now though, under strict covid protocols, with significantly reduced capacity and masks. I hope to join them one day, but for now I’m minding my asthmatic lungs at home!
If you’re a cancer patient or carer – here’s a real look at where we’re carrying out the research to build better diagnostics and therapeutics. If you’re a student thinking about doing a medical/biology based research project – this is the sort of place you’ll find yourself working. Please enjoy!
For more Cancer Research Demystified content, here’s where you can find us:
When Hayley and I began our YouTube channel, Cancer Research Demystified, we had a clear aim in mind: to give patients & their loved ones answers to their questions about cancer research. We began with tackling the science of common treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, explaining the latest hot topics in research like immunotherapy, and showing footage of what happens to a patient’s donated blood or tissue sample when we receive it in a research lab.
But over time, we noticed that these weren’t necessarily the most common questions we were actually getting from patients. Whether we were discussing latest advances in a support group meeting, consenting a patient to take part in a research study, or even just chatting to a taxi driver or barman who mentioned they had a family member with cancer – one question type was emerging as a very common trend.
Now and then, patients & their loved ones would ask us if it was true that big pharma is keeping the cure to cancer a secret. Or indeed, politely inform us that this was happening, and with certainty – to them it was a fact.
While getting an Uber to my lab one day in Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory, USA, my driver told me that what I was doing was a waste of my time – that his cousin was importing the cure from China and selling it at a very reasonable price, and that the US regulators refuse to approve it, because they make too much money from chemotherapy.
In trying to engage with the online cancer patient support community, I joined a wide range of Facebook cancer support groups early on in the Cancer Research Demystified days. I was baffled at the sheer volume of misinformation being shared there. It seemed every time I logged in I came across someone trying to make money off desperate cancer patients – whether it was essential oils, CBD products or alkaline water, the list goes on.
It enraged me to see people trying to make a quick buck off vulnerable people. A cancer diagnosis is an extremely overwhelming thing, with patients getting a huge amount of technical jargon thrown at them during a time of great emotional challenge. You can’t be expected to get a PhD or MD overnight, in order to tell apart the clinicians from the scam artists, and you shouldn’t have to.
Of course the moment you bring up this topic in an office full of cancer researchers – you get a response. Everyone had their story to tell, whether it was a vulnerable relative being lead to believe they could avoid surgery for their cancer and just get acupuncture instead, or a set of memes or viral tweets convincing people that cancer researchers like us are keeping a cure a secret in order to line our own pockets.
It didn’t take long for us to decide to make a small series about this for YouTube. We roped in a colleague, Ben Simpson, who had a penchant for schooling those who were attempting to spread misinformation online. And so far, we’ve produced three episodes, under our series ‘Spam Filter’. The aim is to address these sorts of questions by reviewing the peer reviewed literature on each topic, explain the facts, and discuss why some of these rumours or myths might have managed to take hold.
This topic is persistent online, and it’s easy to understand how it has grown legs, given some of the chemicals found in cannabis can genuinely help to relieve some symptoms/side effects of cancer or cancer treatment. It is not, however, a cure.
This one is a bit irritating to us to say the least, given we have all dedicated our lives to researching cancer. It’s also hard to provide peer reviewed data on something that isn’t real, but we’ve done our best to explain the reality of just how hard it would be to cover up a cure, given the numbers involved – as well as why nobody would bother, given they’d become rich beyond their wildest dreams by just marketing the cure instead!
This is a persistent myth online, that making you body more alkaline by eating alkaline foods (which in some case are actually acidic) could prevent or cure cancer. It’s a trendy diet, that really doesn’t make much sense at all. However, it’s very easy to see why people might think it is working, given they can test differences in their urine’s pH, that make it seem like something is changing. For this video we did some urine and blood tests on Ben, before, during and after a day of eating this diet, and discussed the facts and myths involved.
Which cancer myth do you think we should bust next? Or better yet, is there a rumour, trend or theory going around that you’ve seen, and you can’t tell whether it’s legit or not? Let us know and we’ll try our best to get to the bottom of it!
This was one of the very first research questions I ever set out to answer, way back as a final year undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin, in 2010/2011.
Since then, over many years, a few papers, and with an ever expanding global team, it has remained at least a side project (and in some cases a driving interest) for some of my oldest friends in research!
For me, it began with my final year thesis project, which involved comparing a panel chemosensitive and chemoresistant lung cancer cell lines, developed by Dr Martin Barr as a tool to investigate response to chemotherapy.
We wanted to understand how lung tumours develop resistance to chemotherapy over time, so that we could find better ways to treat them!
We screened the cell lines using qPCR arrays, and identified a few potential genes of interest including NFKBIA, which is involved in regulating NFkB.
NFkB is a well studied transcription factor that seems to play a flexible and complex role in many biological processes.
This initial finding caught the eye of my project supervisor Dr Kathy Gately, who immediately began to wonder if NFkB could be a potential therapeutic target in chemoresistant lung cancer. The project ended up winning the Margaret Ciotti medal as the highest marked thesis in the School, and with the excitement of a new finding (and this early recognition boosting my confidence), it was an easy decision to stick around in Dr Gately’s lab to begin my PhD.
While the PhD project itself was focused more upstream on PI3K/AKT/mTOR, we did further develop our NFkB finding, and it ended up becoming both my first research paper and the first chapter of my PhD thesis. In this work, we used a drug called DHMEQ, which is an inhibitor of NFkB translocation developed by a Japanese collaborator, and we found that it was more effective in treating chemoresistant lung cells than chemosensitive ones.
I have fond memories of this work, as I got to try out a range of new molecular techniques for the first time, including the obligatory ones like cell culture, drug treatments, qPCR and Western blotting, but also things like high content immunofluorescence imaging, proliferation and apoptosis assays, and I even got to run some Sanger sequencing on a machine named ‘Spongebob’!
It was clear from the data that this work opened up a whole range of possibilities, and it was time to expand. My colleagues Peter Godwin and Dr Anne-Marie Baird each took aspects of this forward, with Peter publishing a great review on the topic that remains the most highly cited paper on my Google Scholar profile (thanks Peter!) and Anne-Marie being awarded a fellowship from the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer to investigate a new take on the work down in Brisbane, Australia.
Anne-Marie’s work (alongside Dr Sarah-Louise Ryan) brought a fresh and exciting angle, interrogating the role of inflammatory pathways in NFkB mediated cisplatin resistance, as well as confirming that the NFkB translocation inhibitor wasn’t just more effective in chemoresistant cells, but in fact could be used to resensitise those cells to the effects of the chemotherapy itself.
Well, we’re certainly not the only ones investigating NFkB in chemoresistance…
With groups all over the world also teasing out the role that NFkB is playing in this setting, things are becoming increasingly clear, and also increasingly complex.
It turns out NFkB is quite a promiscuous player in cancer development and aggresivity!
With seemingly endless feedback loops, regulation and cross-talk with other pathways, it seems to have the capacity to drive wide ranging and even opposing phenotypes. Equally, it often appears to be a mere passenger, caught up in attempts at cell survival during times of stress.
With these flexible abilities, can we truly say that NFkB itself is a viable target for drug development?
Sadly, probably not.
But we do hope that our growing understanding of the role that it plays in chemoresistance will help us to identify better targets that work alongside it, and ultimately better ways to treat these tumours.
As ever, we keep searching.
Big thanks to Kathy, Anne-Marie, Martin, Peter and Sarah-Louise, as well as all the other researchers involved in these projects!
Naturally, when the COVID-19 lockdowns began, our laboratory based research had to take a pause, and we had to stay at home.
Is it possible to work from home as a scientist?
I made this video a couple of weeks into lockdown, where I explained that there is still plenty of science that can be done without a lab. I also promised to check in later with how things went, so I’ll do that here now!
It’s now about five months later, and things have largely stayed the same…
Pubs and restaurants have reopened but I haven’t ventured into one just yet. I’m still going out for walks, and almost always wearing a mask, even in open spaces (except during the occasional isolated picnic!)
A few weeks ago, our labs began to reopen, but at very limited capacity. I haven’t been back yet – I am leaving the space to those that need it most – the final year PhD students!
I have repeatedly found myself thanking my lucky stars that I am not trying to finish a PhD this year. For those of you that are, I am thinking of you, and if there is any way that I can help you, please let me know!
I have been busy preparing for the upcoming semester, when I’ll be delivering teaching online to our undergraduate and postgraduate students. Being a module lead is a new experience for me, so leading not one, not two, but THREE modules and adapting them for online learning is going to be quite a challenge! I am so lucky that the rest of our teaching staff have been so accommodating and helpful in showing me the ropes. I hope the students enjoy my modules…
Research still ticks along, with some data getting analysed, some thesis projects getting written up, and some papers getting published, but still no laboratory work.
My current plan is to focus on honing my teaching skills, writing and project planning this semester, and then if all goes well, get stuck back into some lab work in the new year, hopefully with some new students alongside me!
Times are strange due to #Covid19 – so we’re coming to you not from our lab, but on a virtual blackboard instead, from home! This video aims to give a whistle-stop tour of the costs involved in carrying out cancer research. We get asked about this a lot – so we’re here to show you where those valuable funds raised in pub quizzes, sponsored walks & raffles all go! Do you have a guess at how much it costs to carry out a full PhD? Watch the video to find out!
After adamantly refusing to blog for a very long time… it’s time to give in.
Let me introduce myself. I’m Susan. I’m a cancer researcher. My passion is understanding how to exploit vulnerabilities within tumours so that we can find better ways to treat the disease.
Over the last 13 years I’ve been developing my skills, learning more and more about cancer, and working towards the ultimate goal of starting my own research lab.
Now, it is finally happening!
As I work towards building ‘Heavey Lab’ in University College London, where I’ve recently been appointed as a Lecturer in Translational Medicine, I’ll endeavor to pop in now and then, chronicling each of the ‘firsts’ that come along with being a brand new member of faculty.
I’ve enjoyed communicating my research over the years, both online and in the real world, so that cancer patients, advocates, carers and students alike can get a taste of what the world of cancer research is really like. A lot of this #scicomm activity has been through Cancer Research Demystified, which I co-founded and run. I’ll share some of the material that we created for CRD here too, with brief introductions on why we wanted to share these aspects of our work with the world.
I’ll also share our publications, along with plain English explanations of what we found, why it was interesting to us, and with the benefit of hindsight – what happened next.