Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund Intermediate Research Fellow
Radcliffe Department of Medicine (RDM)
MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (MRC WIMM)
MRC Molecular Haematology Unit (MRC MHU)
Tell us a bit about your role
What do you do?
I am currently a Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund Intermediate Research Fellow (KKLF) (junior Group Leader/PI) at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM), University of Oxford.
I have a longstanding interest in leukaemia research started with my PhD and my principal aim is to understand how physiological ageing and leukemogenesis interact: Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) incidence increases dramatically with age, and is far harder to treat in the elderly. A better understanding of how AML progression is affected by ageing is therefore urgently needed.
My hypothesis is based on preliminary data obtained working on normal ageing and AML models, showing that key molecular changes that occur in bone marrow stromal cells during AML progression parallel those that are seen during normal ageing. My final goal is to determine how the aged microenvironment influences AML progression, identifying new therapeutic candidates that are likely to be useful for treating AML in the elderly.
How did you get to where you are now?
Following my PhD in 2014, I moved to the University of Oxford to start my first postdoc at the Blood Cancer UK Molecular Haematology Unit (RDM), where my research was focused on AML and myelodysplastic syndromes. At that point of my career, I had a strong background in the molecular genetics of myeloid malignancies that I wanted to boost acquiring basic knowledge of normal and malignant haematopoiesis and ageing. For this reason, in November 2015, I joined Professor Nerlov’s laboratory to start my second postdoc, where I mostly worked on haematopoietic ageing, trying to address why does the haematopoietic output of erythrocytes and lymphocytes decline with age. I successfully identified key regulators of both declining erythropoiesis and lymphopoiesis and combined these data with similar data obtained from AML models. This allowed me to generate a well-supported hypothesis regarding the role of ageing in AML progression, forming the basis for the KKLF application. In July 2019, I have been awarded the KKLF Intermediate Research Fellowship, taking the first step needed for achieving my goal of leading my independent research group.
How does your role fit into the wider landscape of the Medical Sciences?
As said before, I am daily involved in translational leukaemia research, with the final goal to provide new treatments options to AML elderly patients; my laboratory life also involves the day-to-day official supervision for Medical Sciences DPhil students.
I am also a mentor in the RDM Mentoring scheme with the role of assisting students to achieve personal and professional growth, providing support as they progress within the university and a member of the RDM Career Development Committee.
Last, but not least, I am a Research Associate in the Medical Sciences at St Catherine’s College, acting as College Advisor to seven graduate students in Medical Sciences.
What is the most meaningful aspect of your work?
The most meaningful aspect of my work, and of the translational cancer research in general, is to translate basic research into clinical applicability, allowing the development of molecular targeted therapies.
Even though AML occurs most commonly in adults ≥60 years, the treatment of AML in older patients remains a significant challenge, with many elderly patients considered ineligible for standard intensive induction therapy due to performance status and comorbidities. I hope, with my work, to take a step forward on the way to a better therapeutic future for this “unfit” AML subgroup characterized by a dismal prognosis.
Can you tell us about something you've done, contributed to that you're most proud of?
There are two different aspects of my work that make me really proud every day.
The first one is obviously science-related; when you work really hard and you reach your goal, that feeling is something that is quite impossible to explain. I was really proud of myself when I was awarded the KKLF Intermediate Research Fellowship, taking the first step needed for reaching my independence, the happiest day in my career so far.
Another aspect, much more personal, is being able in my position to mentor/support younger students/scientists through their career. Our future is in their hands, and contributing, even if in small part to their success, makes me really proud.
What changes would you most like to see in the Medical Sciences in the next 100 years?
THE DAY when all CANCERS are definitely CURED. This is what I would love to see happen in the Medical Sciences in the next 100 years.
Another important change, completely different from the previous one, that I would like to see in the next 100 years, is more female leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)/ Medical Sciences careers. Indeed, despite improvement over the past decade, the so-called “leaky pipeline” is still a huge problem in academia, leading to the loss of a large pool of talented women.