Interview with Brain Tumour Research PhD researcher Lottie Howell

3 min read
 by Liz Fussey

Our team at the Centre of Excellence at the University of Plymouth has a world-leading track record in researching low-grade brain tumours which can become high-grade, but can also cause long-term and life-changing challenges for patients.

To find out more about the work led by Professor Oliver Hanemann and what motivates researchers to get into this field, we spoke to Lottie Howell, one of the PhD researchers there.

What is the background to your career path? What inspired you to get into brain tumour research?

I’ve always had a curious mind, so science appeals to me because I want to understand how everything works. I developed an interest in neuroscience as a teenager and decided to study biology at university. During my undergraduate degree I fell in love with cell biology and decided if I was going to pursue a science career, I wanted to be doing something that would help people. This led me to completing my master’s in translational cancer medicine and looking for PhDs in cancer research. While studying brain tumours is great because it covers all my scientific interests, there is also personal significance for me. When I was 15 years old my mother (pictured below) was diagnosed with a grade 2 diffuse astrocytoma brain tumour, so I know how devastating that diagnosis can be. It feels quite full circle to be doing a PhD funded by Brain Tumour Research, given that I was already familiar with the charity and the work they do, so getting to work in one of the Centres of Excellence felt like the perfect research opportunity for me. 

What project are you focusing on at the moment?

My PhD focuses on changes to specific proteins in low and high-grade meningioma. I study how these differences impact the characteristics of the cancer cells, such as shifts in metabolism, to understand how this contributes to meningioma development and growth.

What is meningioma?

Meningiomas (image of a meningioma cell below) are the most common primary intracranial tumours. It is a type of cancer that arises from the cells of the meninges, the protective membranes that covers the brain and spinal cord.

Meningioma cell – credit: Centre of Excellence at the University of Plymouth

What are the differences between low and high-grade meningiomas?

Meningiomas are often low-grade and slow growing, but some meningiomas are malignant and grow faster (high-grade). Meningiomas are classified as either grade 1, 2 or 3. While the majority of meningiomas are grade 1, low-grade tumours have the ability to undergo malignant transformation and become more aggressive. For all grades, the primary treatment for meningioma is surgery, but radiotherapy may also be required, both of which can lead to life-long side effects.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Getting to spend my time exploring areas of science I’m genuinely passionate about, planning experiments based on this interest and collecting data on something new that hasn’t been studied before is really what makes this work so exciting.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The nature of scientific research is that there’s always more work to be done. The more we know and the more new things we uncover mean those discoveries need further investigation to understand them fully. Research is hard because you always feel like you could and should be doing more, and you’re constantly striving to understand very complex biological processes, which isn’t something simple that can be done quickly.

How will the work at Plymouth improve outcomes for low-grade brain tumour patients?

A lot of the research at Plymouth focuses on understanding the biology behind the development and maintenance of brain tumours, with a focus on low-grade tumours like meningiomas and schwannomas which are also known as acoustic neuromas. Low-grade tumours are so under-studied compared with other tumour types so the research we do here is vital for people who are diagnosed with these common tumour types. By improving our understanding of these tumours, we can translate this into new and better treatment options for patients.

Prof Oliver Hanemann, principal investigator at our Centre of Excellence at the University of Plymouth

What are your dreams for the future, for yourself and brain tumour research?

I plan to keep working in cancer research, hopefully still in brain tumour research. I want to do work that I know is helping people and contributing to our understanding of cancer. My dream is that one day brain tumour diagnoses won’t have to be so terrifying for patients, and that the treatment options will have expanded.

Why should people sign the petition?

Research into brain tumours is very underfunded compared to other cancer types. Every brain tumour diagnosis, regardless of type or grade, is devastating. Patients need better treatment options, and progress won’t be made without substantial investment into research. There is so much more work to be done when it comes to brain tumour research and if the government can recognise this by increasing investment and spending in the field, it would make a noticeable difference to the lives of everyone who is impacted by a brain tumour diagnosis.

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