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I nearly sent a bucket of medical samples flying into the Houses of Parliament!

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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12 Aug 2019

Meet senior lecturer and researcher, Dr Andrea Pepper, whose work is focused on pinning cancer cells in one place so they can be treated more easily.

Dr Andera Pepper in the lab
Dr Andera Pepper in the lab

Hi Andrea, can you tell us a bit about your work?

I am a Senior Lecturer in cancer research at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. I do a small amount of undergraduate teaching but my main role is running a leukaemia research laboratory based team with my husband, Chris Pepper.

We also have PhD students and post-docs working on various projects related to chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). We work on cells donated by people with leukaemia that have been collected by our colleagues, Dr Tim Chevassut and Dr Roz Johnston, who see patients.

Did you always want to work in a medical lab?

I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse but my father, who was a doctor, advised me that it would be hard for me to communicate with patients and in emergencies as I am profoundly deaf and find it hard to lip read some people.

He therefore suggested I work in medical labs and I have had the best career ever so I am very glad I took his advice!

How did you get started in medical research?

I began when I was 18, working in a diagnostic laboratory at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. I made all kinds of mistakes at first.

The funniest one was when I was in a lab that had a window directly overlooking the Houses of Parliament. I put some samples in a centrifuge to spin and I don’t think I closed the lid properly.

At 3000 revs per minute, the rubber seal inside the lid came loose and tangled itself up in the rotor, causing a heavy metal bucket with samples in to fall off the rotor arm. The force of this broke the clip holding the lid shut and the bucket flew out across the lab.

It just missed my head and smashed into the window. Thankfully the glass was tough, as it shattered but didn’t let the bucket go any further. I had visions of the bucket traveling over to the Houses of Parliament and this resulting in me being arrested!

Thank goodness you and the window survived! Looking back, do you have some advice you’d like to give to your younger self?

Close the lid properly – and go to University after A levels so you don’t have to do all your qualifications in evening school whilst working in the day.

What are you working on right now?

In our lab, we are really interested in how leukaemic cells migrate (move) from one part of the body to another, for example, from the veins and arteries to the lymph nodes, which are little ‘pockets’ in the immune system where white blood cells gather.

When leukaemic cells migrate they can find ‘hiding places’ where they are protected from destruction by drugs. We want to try and stop them being able to migrate to these protective niches, so we are working on the mechanisms they use to migrate and how they can be blocked.

We are also trying to work out why some cells migrate and others don’t. 

Andrea teaching undergraduates about medical science

Why do we need the work you do?

Before any new drugs and treatments can be developed we need to understand better the biology of the diseases we are researching. I hope that the work we are doing will lead to the discovery of mechanisms that leukaemic cells, and cancer cells in general, use to move to other areas. This would enable new drugs to be developed to stop cancer cells from moving about.

Most cancers would be much easier to treat if they stayed in one place. The work also has a personal meaning for me and Chris, as Chris’s father died of CLL and mine died of pancreatic cancer.

What's the hardest thing about your work?

Trying to get funding to do the research. Research is really expensive and only Chris and I have our salaries paid for by the medical school. We have to find money elsewhere for the salaries of our research team and also all the lab equipment.  This is why charities like Bloodwise, who fund leukaemia research, are invaluable to us.

We’re glad to hear it! Let’s wrap up…  What do you have in your desk drawer that most people wouldn’t expect to find there?

A hair dryer! A bit vain, I know, but we have the beautiful Stanmer Park on our doorstep at work and I often run early in the morning when I get in. I then shower, wash my hair and dry it at my desk before beginning on my research.

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