Where did you grow up and where did you first study medicine? Please talk us through your medical training and career choices, and why you chose to combine academic research with your clinical role as a colorectal surgeon.
I grew up in Leicester and was a very fortunate child who enjoyed fantastic educational opportunities with parents who strongly valued learning and gave me every encouragement.
Both of my parents liked the fact that I was a very curious and inquisitive child who asked a lot of questions and wanted answers! They were also very caring people, and I think both factors played important roles in my decision to study medicine and become a doctor and medical researcher so that I could help others.
At school, I studied sciences and maths at A Level and then chose to go to medical school in Leicester where I gained a medical degree. During that time I was exposed to different specialties within surgery and medicine, giving me a very broad platform from which to choose a surgical specialism.
During my foundation years and core surgical training I was really fortunate to work with a number of surgeons whom I discovered were really on my own wavelength. I admired their approach and dedication to the profession, and that so many were running academic research projects whilst also having full-time NHS roles as surgeons. I think this had a really big influence in how my career has turned out.
It became quite a natural decision for me to want to have a much more detailed understanding of how colorectal cancer develops, so I decided to enrol for a PhD at the University of Glasgow (2015 to 2018) under the supervision of a fantastic mentor Professor Joanne Edwards. Joanne really encouraged me to start thinking like a scientist and how science can be used to answer clinically relevant questions to improve patient care. She was always supportive and generous with her time.
After finishing my PhD, my challenge was to establish myself as an academic researcher and surgeon in Manchester and the North West. My current research is based within the Colorectal & Peritoneal Oncology Group at the Manchester Cancer Research Centre. We are a diverse group of medical researchers and scientists who are working together so we can address some of the key questions related to peritoneal metastasis. We are driven by the need to better understand colorectal peritoneal metastasis, how and why they develop and to expand the treatment options available to patients. It’s a very important part of our motivation.
In lay terms, please tell us about your new BRUK funded research project and what you hope to achieve from it?
In the broadest sense, what I hope to achieve is a better understanding of how colorectal peritoneal metastasis develops and improve treatment options for people with peritoneal metastases. It’s a not well understood complication of bowel cancer, and a lot of people won’t really have heard of it. It’s part of our mission to increase awareness of the difficulties associated with treating peritoneal metastasis and the expand research in this field.
Sadly, at the moment, many patients with advanced colorectal peritoneal metastases have only limited options. As a surgeon and academic researcher, I want to be able to offer more, especially when the disease cannot be treated through chemotherapy, or when it can’t be treated through surgery.
My new BRUK-funded project specifically looks at the role bacteria might play in the development of peritoneal metastasis. We think bacteria might play a role in how bowel cancer spreads to the peritoneum. Being based at The Christie provides a unique opportunity to study patients who undergo surgery for peritoneal metastasis and importantly the opportunity to study samples that are removed at the time of surgery.
We are able to have a very wide look at the issue because I work alongside colleagues across many different disciplines, including oncologists, scientists, surgeons and pathologists. It’s an interesting mix of professionals and a very stimulating environment to be in.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
I have some amazing colleagues both in the clinical and research environments. Their commitment and enthusiasm are inspiring; it is a privilege to work with such good people.
From the research point of view I enjoy having time to stop and think, and the chance to reflect on the important questions. I love working with people who are experts in their own fields and the sharing of ideas that leads to exciting collaborative research.
I also enjoy talking about my research. It’s great to share new research ideas and findings and know that we are working on projects that have the potential to improve patients’ lives.
To be honest, there’s really very little I don’t enjoy about my work and career, even when I am under pressure to deliver results and will be measured against expected outputs. Part of my training has been about building up the resilience to cope with such pressures and enjoy the challenge.
What effect do you expect artificial intelligence (AI) to play in medical research and ultimately new treatments for bowel disease patients?
I can make no claims to be an expert in AI, but I do see it from a surgeon’s perspective. I think it will play an increasing role during surgery and diagnosis, helping detect cancer more accurately, recognising anomalies in anatomy during surgery, and finding/recognising more types of growths during endoscopies as well as pathological analysis of patient samples. As AI develops, I think it could become standard in patient care.
From a research perspective, AI will help us analyse big data sets, enabling us to delve deeper and more efficiently into it. I do admit to finding it a little bit daunting, but I try not to judge it negatively because I am sure there will be many benefits, even though I am not entirely clear at this point what they all might be.
Click here to learn more about Dr Patel’s research project.