Tell us a little about where you live and work and how you became interested in medical research.
I live in Mile End in East London End which is where I grew up, but four or five days a week I commute to Sutton in South London to work in the laboratories in the Centre for Evolution & Cancer at the Institute of Cancer Research.
Before Sutton, I was based much closer to home at St Bartholomew’s Hospital (St. Bart’s) but the opportunity to study at the Institute of Cancer Research and expand our research impact was too good to miss, even if it’s a bit of a hike across town.
My first degree was in genetics at Cardiff University but while studying there I became most interested in human genetics, in particular its influence on diseases like cancer. After graduating from Cardiff, I returned to study in London, pursuing an MSc in Regenerative Medicine at Queen Mary College in East London, and became increasingly interested in how dysregulation of stem cells leads to cancer.
What really motivates me is research with practical, real-life medical benefits as well as being able to contribute to theoretical understanding. This is why I started working with Trevor Graham, my PhD supervisor, at St Bart’s in 2018. Trevor was working on research to see if was possible to model how inflammatory bowel disease leads to bowel cancer.
At Sutton, I benefit from working with three other first year PhD students who are in exactly the same position as me. We quickly formed a small support bubble where we help each other in practical ways, like practising presentations or discussing ideas together.
Since the lifting of Covid restrictions, it’s great to be able to actually chat through a research problem in person over a coffee rather than being stuck on a Zoom call. We are all enjoying the chance to have normal human contact which for me more than makes up for any time lost to the daily commute.
Despite working at the Institute of Cancer Research, I maintain excellent relationships with St Bart’s Hospital and the Royal London in Whitechapel, my local hospital. It’s very important for my research to have to access to sufficient quantities of human tissue and blood samples, which is why I also work with colleagues at St Mark’s Hospital in North West London who perform many colonoscopies and are happy for me to analyse tissue collected after operations.
In simple terms, please tell us about your PhD research project.
With the support of Trevor, I wrote an application to Bowel Research UK for a three-year grant of £75,000 to cover the teaching costs and my living expenses while completing a PhD based on the hypothesis that a simple blood test might be able to detect bowel cancer cells in people with IBDs and that it might be possible to model with accuracy if and when an IBD potentially leads to cancer in individuals. My PhD, which is titled ‘Developing a non- invasive biomarker’, began in September 2021 and I will submit my thesis in 2024, all things being equal.
The advantage of a blood test is that almost everyone would regard it as less invasive than taking tissue samples during a colonoscopy. Blood tests are more acceptable to most patients who currently have to provide regular faecal samples for calprotectin tests – these show the level of active inflammation in the bowel. The beauty of a blood test is that they can be done at home or a doctor’s surgery.
From being able to work with IBD patients at both the St Mark’s and the Royal London Hospitals, I have gathered a lot of tissue and taken a lot of blood samples, some from cancer patients who have had parts of their bowel removed. It’s still early days, but we are already generating some promising data sets. Based on current progress we hope we might be able to roll out a blood test in at least one hospital like St Mark’s in about five or six years from now. If that is too optimistic, we would expect to see a blood test in everyday use in around ten to 12 years’ time. We believe our blood test will have the same sensitivity as a calprotectin test but importantly it might also be able to provide more information on disease patches in the bowel and their rate of spread.
What does a normal working week look like?
What’s amazing about research work is that it is so varied. My average week consists of regular contact with clinicians such as Professor Ailsa Hart at St Mark’s. I need to be aware of when her patients are coming in for treatment or screening, and I have to work out when it is best to collect tissue samples or take blood tests. I allow time during my visits for handling any issues about patient consent and have to ensure my work meets the strict ethical standards.
When back at the labs in Sutton, I generate data from my samples, extracting DNA using ‘wet lab’ techniques, which is methodical and painstaking physical work that can’t be rushed. These samples are then sequenced to provide large amounts of information on how changes to the genetic code might cause disease. I then use computer coding and mathematical principles to help us understand the meaning of the raw data.
I am grateful for Trevor’s mathematical background because he understands how to process data and apply it to make clinical impacts in cancer research. My PhD requires that I develop similar skills to Trevor’s. Although I’m an academic student, I constantly interact with colleagues, which is fun and challenging.
What do expect to do after you finish your PhD?
I love academic research, and I’d very much like to continue to stay in this field after I qualify. I also enjoy teaching, and would plan to continue working with undergraduate and master’s students. While I love working and living in London, if my career demands I live somewhere else I will be very open to moving to take up a new post. Fortunately, there’s decent funding in cancer research so it is not unreasonable to think I will be able to stay in London, or perhaps to live and work in Oxford or Cambridge. The future is very exciting with plenty to look forward to.