How did you become a blood cancer researcher?
I first became interested in how the bone marrow can produce all the different types of blood cells in our bodies in high school. Later, while I was studying Immunology at the University of the Mediterranean Aix-Marseille II in France, my curiosity was stimulated by lecturers who made clear that we still don’t know much about the healthy development of blood, and how this goes wrong in blood cancer. As my fascination grew, I decided to undertake a PhD in this area.
During the PhD, I explored what happens when a molecule called a tyrosine kinase receptor goes wrong, and how this can lead to acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). I hoped to find differences between cells with healthy and unhealthy tyrosine kinase receptors which we could exploit in order to treat AML. I went on to do a research project on lung cancer to broaden my knowledge, but while this was really interesting and enjoyable, it only confirmed that what I really wanted to do was research blood cancers.
Seven years ago, I was lucky enough to become a researcher in Professor David Grimwade’s group at King’s College London, focusing on AML – specifically acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL), which is a subtype of AML. Here I focused on the cell nucleus – the command centre of the cell – which stores the cell’s genetic information in the form of DNA. I was interested in the tiny dots on the nucleus called ‘PML nuclear bodies’, which usually recruit proteins involved in various essential functions for the cell, such as DNA damage repair. But the nuclear bodies can be disrupted when two genes (PML and RARα) fuse together to generate a cancer gene, which causes APL to develop.
Sadly, Professor Grimwade passed away in October 2016. But he will always be remembered by patients and colleagues for the enormous impact his lifetime of research, generously supported by Bloodwise, made on the treatment and cure of these leukaemias. I am proud to have worked with him, and to be able to continue the work he began. We are now working to achieve a better understanding of the mechanisms involved, so that we can use this knowledge to design targeted therapies for other types of AML.
Tell us a bit more about acute promyelocytic leukaemia. What makes it different from other types of AML?
Until recently, APL was the most lethal form of AML, but today, thanks to the efforts of researchers like Professor Grimwade and his group, up to 80% of patients with APL can be not just treated, but actually cured, thanks to a combination of chemotherapy and a targeted drug called ATRA. The story which underlies the discovery of this cure is really amazing, because it was the result of a close collaboration between French and Chinese researchers, and without the combination of expertise from both sides no discovery would have been possible that fast. It was also the first successful targeted therapy – meaning it directly tackled the problem causing APL and left healthy cells alone. Subsequently it has been the inspiration for a lot of research on different types of AML and other cancers.
Why do we need the research you do, and what does it mean for people who have blood cancer?
Analysing the biology of APL can give us a better understanding of what makes treatment successful or unsuccessful. This knowledge, which lets us cure APL in more than 80% of cases, will hopefully lead to equally successful future treatment in other types of AML which are currently difficult to treat.
What do you do in the lab on a day-to-day basis?
Daily life in the laboratory sounds very routine: every day I carry out the experiments and analyse the results; design new experiments in response to previous findings, or to answer new questions raised by my results; read papers published by other researchers in the field; carry out ‘house-keeping’ like administration and finance; supervise students; and help colleagues. However, this routine varies a great deal. Experiments can differ greatly in terms of the questions they seek to answer, in the methods you need to use, and in the results you obtain. Sometimes an experiment is planned to confirm or exclude a possibility, so that a particular theory is ruled out, or sometimes an experiment generates results which open up an entirely new area of investigation. Sometimes there is even a ‘Eureka’ moment when you realise that you have discovered something entirely new!
A mass spectrometry analysis that Edwige is currently working on. Mass spectrometry can be used to find out what molecules are present in a cell. In this case, Edwige is looking for proteins associated with a specific change in the cell that can contribute to cancer.
What common misconceptions do people have about your job?
Interestingly, people’s reactions have changed in quite a bit in the ten years since I did my PhD. During my student days non-scientists thought that science was difficult and boring, and said so! These days, scientists know that they need to tell people about their work and why it matters, so people are more aware of the importance of research, and the exciting new technologies being developed! However, people still tend to think that scientists know all about anything to do with science, whether in their field or any other. I would really love that to be true, but unfortunately, as a cell biologist, I really don’t know much about current NASA projects, or the latest breakthrough in string theory…
What's your favourite thing about your work?
The absence of routine! We are always making improvements to lab techniques, and new technologies are constantly emerging … there is always something new to learn, and no time to get bored! Also, research is based on team-work: it is really important to establish collaborations with other workers in your field, and to discuss your findings with colleagues in the next-door laboratory, or anywhere in the world. Bouncing around ideas, or discussing conclusions that you have drawn from experiments, is a great way to make sure your research is the best it can be. And it gives us lots of opportunities to meet fellow scientists. A life in scientific research is really enriching, at many different levels!
Edwige (R) with Dr Meryem Ozgencil, a junior postdoctoral researcher in the same research group. They are examining a Western blot, which can help separate and identify an individual protein from a mixture of proteins.
What's one of the hardest things about your work?
What I find most challenging is the lack of time: we have so much we want to do, and there are only 24 hours in a day. We constantly juggle experiments and laboratory tasks, and at the end of the day that can be exhausting.
What do you do when you’re not in the lab?
I relax with a weekly pilates class. Using a pipette, or working at a computer, puts a great strain on the back and shoulders, and pilates is a really great way of relieving aching muscles, and re-charging your batteries.
Is there anything you would like to say to Bloodwise supporters?
My research could not have been carried out without funding from Bloodwise, the key charity supporting those working on blood cancers and leukaemias. The support you have given me, and many other researchers, has been amazing, and I would like to express my deep gratitude to Bloodwise, and its donors and volunteers, who raised the funds which made my work possible. In return I have done my utmost to deliver research results which will enable a better understanding of blood cancers in general, and will lead to further improvements in treatment in the future. By working together, we will beat blood cancer!
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