Interview with new PhD brain tumour researchers

3 min read
 by Nicola Gale

At Brain Tumour Research, one of our key research aims is to grow capacity in the UK brain tumour research sector by attracting and retaining talented researchers. To do this, we need to nurture and encourage talented young researchers into the field of neuro-oncological research.

We recently caught up with Niamh and Sanjana, two new Brain Tumour Research-funded PhD students, to find out more about what attracted them to a research career, and why they are focusing on brain tumours. They started their PhD journey on the same day at Queen Mary University of London in Professor Silvia Marino’s lab, and have been part of the Brain Tumour Research community for a month.  

What drew you to brain tumour research?

Niamh: During my master’s degree, I found myself sort of falling down the rabbit hole of glioblastoma research when trying to write an essay on the role of epigenetics in cancer, and it really gripped me. Up until then my main experience had lent more towards breast and lung cancer, which both receive a lot of funding and attention so have had some pretty significant jumps forward in recent years. Then, almost on the other end of the spectrum, you have this devastating disease which hasn’t had the same level of funding and there’s still so much we don’t know about it, with minimal improvements in patient outcomes over the years.

Sanjana: I grew up being surrounded by doctors of various specialisations in my family and have had a rather personal understanding of the patient-doctor relationship. I was always intrigued by the science behind the treatments or diagnosis that was part of my grandfather’s daily routine as an oncologist for more than 60 years. I have had some experience in neuroscience research as an undergrad student and comprehending the biology of the brain combined with my fascination and personal connection to cancer research, drew me to study brain cancers. It was a “no-brainer” that I wanted to pursue brain tumour research.

What is your PhD project focused on?

Niamh: Broadly speaking, my project is focused on investigating epigenetic changes in glioblastoma (GBM) patients and looking at how these could potentially inform things such as the development of new treatments or even personalised therapeutic approaches. 

Sanjana: My PhD project funded by Brain Tumour Research involves an exciting collaboration with Dr Lovorka Stojic to understand the role of long-noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) in glioblastoma (GBM). lncRNAs are a single strand of genetic material, bigger than 200 units, which interacts with a variety of cellular components to influence whether a gene is turned on or off, or to increase or decrease its expression. We hope to characterise novel lncRNAs to understand their role in GBM and leverage this knowledge to develop patient-specific therapeutics.

Glioblastoma under microscope with dyes (Credit: Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence at Queen Mary University of London)

What could your research mean for patients?

Niamh: Ideally, it could lead to the identification of viable new targets for fighting GBM, meaning improvements in patient outcomes and a better chance of surviving this aggressive cancer.

Sanjana: LncRNAs as a cancer therapeutic is a relatively new and emerging field and hijacking this ability of lncRNAs that aid in tumour sustenance and growth to be therapeutic target can be highly advantageous for patients. The current standard of treatment for GBM patients is temozolomide and surgical resection of the tumour. Developing patient-specific therapeutics through the SYNGN* system ensures the efficacy of therapeutic targets in each individual patient.

*The SYNGN system compares a patient’s tumour initiating cell with an unaffected neural stem cell of the same patient.  

Scan showing multi focal GBM

What do you enjoy about your research?

Niamh: Knowing that what I’m doing could make a difference in someone's life is a really rewarding feeling and helps me to enjoy what I’m doing even when experiments and things don’t go to plan. I feel quite privileged to be able to do the work I do, getting to see things like glioblastoma cells under the microscope is fascinating, and the feeling of relief/excitement when an experiment goes to plan is unmatched.

Sanjana: I thoroughly enjoy the group’s weekly lab meeting. We are constantly surrounded by inspiring scientists with new ideas and the plethora of exciting data that is constantly generated. The most exciting thing about science is that every single day is different. I enjoy discussing other projects, brainstorming my own research, and reading papers. This really keeps my brain going and motivates me throughout the day.

Who inspires you?

Niamh: I find myself getting inspired mostly by those around me. Hearing others talk about their research, what they’re passionate about, really acts as a reminder that I’m fortunate to be pursuing a career where people care deeply about what they’re doing. It’s always so interesting to hear about how others are approaching something, and this can then help you to think about what you’re doing in a different way and even come up with solutions to any problems you’re encountering.

Sanjana: The passion, consistence and perseverance I see in all of the scientists I surround myself with inspires me every day.

The Queen Mary team

What do you think will encourage more talented researchers, like yourself, to pursue a career in brain tumour research?

Niamh: I think the key thing is to really make people aware of the opportunities to get into brain tumour research. It's such an interesting area of research with lots to investigate and learn more about, with a real potential impact on patient wellbeing. At the end of the day, I think most, if not all, people get into a research career because they want to have a tangible impact on the treatment and care patients receive, and there is so much room for improvement in this area across the scope of brain tumours.

In your opinion, what can be done to encourage researchers to remain in brain tumour research?

Sanjana: Understanding the impact of the research first-hand and improving the funding in my opinion will certainly encourage researchers to remain in this field. Raising funds not only to recruit new researchers but to maintain existing researchers will encourage and provide an incentive for the scientist to remain in this field of research.

We will catch up with Niamh and Sanjana next year to see how their first year in brain tumour research has gone.

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