Associate Professor Medical Oncology
Department of Oncology
Tell us a bit about your role
I am a clinician-scientist. The clinical aspect of my job is running Oxford’s Early Phase Clinical Trials Unit. There are about 60 members of staff in the team – nurses, doctors, administrators and scientists – and we conduct about 80 trials of new cutting-edge treatments in our cancer patients every year. For many of these studies it is the first time the drug has been tested in humans and therefore patient safety is our foremost concern. I became interested in Early Phase trials after I took time out of my oncology training to do a PhD and got bitten by the research bug. After that I wanted to weave research into my career and use it to improve the lives of cancer patients. This has become a major driver in for me. Oxford Trials Unit is one of the forerunning Phase I units in the UK, and I am keen to continue to build on its excellent reputation.
The scientist part of my job is leading a research group in exploring messenger RNA (mRNA) dysregulation in cancer. My PhD was spent exploring fruit fly genetics and I came across a gene that, when mutated, gave the flies a number of strange characteristics. We showed the gene, LARP1, was an RNA Binding Protein, a relatively new family of proteins at the time. After I finished my clinical training, I first founded a lab at Imperial College and we cloned human LARP1 and showed it had a very important (and nasty) role in driving cancer. I moved to Oxford in 2015 and my lab has now extended its remit to explore other members of this family of proteins and other aspects of RNA biology. We joined forces with RNA labs around the UK and are developing drugs to inhibit RNA binding proteins. Next year we will be starting clinical trials of these RNA-targeted treatments.
What is the most meaningful aspect of your work?
It has been a real joy to navigate my research from fruit flies all the way through to the clinic and to connect my scientific and clinical interests. When I started research my work was considered niche and esoteric but, now that we have better sequencing methods at our disposal, RNA biology is becoming all the rage! Clinically, it is very exciting to test a new drug that really works in patients and see the positive impact that makes on their lives. Many come to us having given up any hope of living beyond a few months but achieve lasting benefit in a trial, sometimes for years. It teaches you about the unpredictability of life and to become familiar with the future game-changing medicines. I am really keen to keep quality of life (QoL) within my research agenda as these studies are important and often overlooked. For example, I designed and conducted a national ovarian cancer study that highlighted the fear of relapse that so many patients experience but showed it was responsive to a brief counselling intervention. Overall, the most meaningful aspect of my career has been the relationships I have had with patients, colleagues and collaborators.
Can you tell us about something you've done, contributed to that you're most proud of?
My mentor Prof Anne Willis and I set up an RNA Alliance in 2015 (a network of RNA biologists and drug developers from Glasgow, Cambridge and Oxford) which has become like an extended family. The first cancer treatment to come from this alliance will be starting clinical trials in Oxford within a year.
I am also proud of starting the LARP Society in 2010, this year we are celebrating a decade of the society and the international meetings and collaborations that have come from it with a special edition in RNA Biology. The society enables LARP nerds (like myself) from around the world to meet and compare discoveries about this intriguing family of proteins that have preoccupied our careers.
What changes would you most like to see in the Medical Sciences in the next 100 years?
I would like to see drugs against RNA binding proteins becoming standard of care in the anti-cancer treatment arsenal.
I would like to see more cancer prevention research as this tends to be overlooked.
I would like to see the genuinely fair treatment of women in research, both within their departments but also by funding committees that tend (still) to be male-dominated.
I would like there to be government-funded oversight of research integrity