THE BLOG

Out-Smarting Breast Cancer With the Brightest Minds

20/11/2014 12:10 GMT | Updated 20/01/2015 10:59 GMT

I've been a Breast Cancer Campaign funded researcher for five years now. My work focuses on how epigenetic changes on our DNA might increase people's chances of getting breast cancer.

Epigenetics is a really exciting, relatively young, field that looks at molecular changes on DNA which tell the cell how the genes should be read. It might be easier to imagine the DNA code as the script of a play, epigenetics are like notes in the margin telling the actor or director how to interpret and enact that script. These "notes" could be inherited in some cases and could explain how the environment ends up sometimes affecting how our genes are read.

I've been fortunate enough to be awarded a Scientific Fellowship grant from Breast Cancer Campaign, enabled by funding from Asda's Tickled Pink. This allowed me to start my independent research career and ask questions like: "is epigenetics causing cancer and how do we prevent that?" But often some of the brightest young researchers struggle to get to a point in their career where they can start asking their own questions, and sometimes this means they leave science altogether. You have to wonder if this means there are people leaving a career in cancer research that could ultimately have led to the cures for breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Campaign recognises that if you want to keep doing the best breast cancer research you need to keep the best minds in science. So, to address growing concerns that great scientists were leaving medical research too early, and help ensure they were able to research breast cancer full time, the charity introduced their Scientific Fellowship grants in 2006.

The five-year grant of £550,000 is given to up-and-coming scientists to help them develop into world-class, independent breast cancer researchers. That money is used to pay for the expensive research reagents and experiments, and it pays for my salary (i.e. keeps me employed!). Importantly, the Charity Research Support Fund, set up by the Government in 2006, covers the additional costs of research, for example, heating, lighting and powering of laboratories, so that charity funding goes only to the people and supplies that actually do the research.

But do these grants make a difference?

In terms of keeping researchers in science, and focused on breast cancer, one former Breast Cancer Campaign Fellow, Dr Jo Morris has said; "Without the funding offered by Campaign it's possible that I wouldn't have remained in science". I would echo that and say the same might well have applied to me. And after five years of research with my Fellowship I have now been appointed to Senior Lecturer in my department. The Fellowship has given me the opportunity to achieve that.

But more importantly to people affected by breast cancer, Campaign's Fellows are making discoveries that are leading new ways to overcome the disease.

For example, the first Fellow to be funded, Dr Rob Clarke at the University of Manchester, has contributed to a broad acceptance in the scientific community that 'cancer stem cells' play a role in breast and other cancers. His research team have provided some of the first evidence that breast cancer stem cells taken directly from patients can be successfully treated and destroyed.

During my own Fellowship I've also been able to show that epigenetics has huge potential for changing how we approach breast cancer. I was lucky enough to receive international press coverage for my team's work that showed that epigenetic changes in a gene called ATM are linked to an individual's breast cancer risk and can be measured in blood samples many years before cancer develops. We are now busy trying to find more examples of this and have some interesting results to report soon!

Without Breast Cancer Campaign putting thought into offering grants that support different stages of science careers none of the above would have happened. This is vital because we need as many innovative approaches to breast cancer research as possible if we want to see breast cancer overcome and outlived by 2050, as Breast Cancer Campaign do.

And for me personally, having a Fellowship brings me one step closer to seeing an end to breast cancer. In an interview for Bang Goes the Theory I told the presenter Dallas Campbell that I hope one day we can say "this year no one died from breast cancer", and that this would happen sometime during my career.