Dannii Hutchins
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Q&A with Researcher, Suzanne Turner.

Dannii Hutchins
Posted by
10 Jun 2015

An insight into the world of blood cancer research as seen by Suzanne, who is based in Cambridge.

Last week we caught up with one of our researchers, Suzanne Turner, who is based in Cambridge. Here is a little insight into the world of research and what Suzanne and her team are up to…..


How long have you been working as a blood cancer researcher?

I started my career in blood cancer research in 1996 as a PhD student at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research in Manchester. There I worked under the guidance of a team of supervisors including Linda Lashford, Joe Raffery and Lez Fairbairn. The subject of my PhD thesis was to examine whether chemoprotective gene therapy might be an option for children undergoing treatment for cancer to prevent toxicity to their bone marrow and therefore to reduce the risk of secondary leukaemia (caused by the chemotherapy). In 2000 after a short spell at the Central Toxicology Labs at AstraZeneca I moved to the Babraham Institute in Cambridge to undertake postdoctoral training in the lab of Denis Alexander. Here I learnt about T cells, the soldiers of our immune system and how they might become cancerous. It was during my time at the Babraham that I became interested in Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase, a cancer-causing protein that is still the main focus of my research activities today.


Why did you choose to research blood cancer?

Blood cancers derive from one of the most complex and fascinating tissues of our bodies; the immune cells that protect us from invading pathogens on a daily basis. Much of our understanding of how the immune system functions normally, have come from studies of cancers of this system, the leukaemias and lymphomas. Hence, this tissue continues to fascinate and amaze me not least due to its natural complexity.


What are you and the team working on at the moment?

Our lab focusses on childhood blood cancers that originate from the B and T cells of our immune systems. We want to understand why these cancers develop in the first place, how they evolve and therefore how we might better treat them. The latter is particularly important when working with childhood cancers because even though cure rates are relatively high, children suffer the most from the long-term side-effects of current therapies.


What does a typical day in the lab look like?

There is never really a typical day in the lab which is the great thing about science – you learn every day and whilst there are some great moments there are also many trying times.  Unfortunately I do not get into the lab quite as much as I would like to; there are always committees to attend, students to see and a variety of administrative tasks to complete to enable the smooth running of a research lab.


What’s your favourite part of your job?

I learn something new every day! The science underlying paediatric NHL is fascinating and to be part of the process of unravelling its complexities is a true blessing.


What new developments for treating the disease are you excited about?

It can be very difficult to instigate clinical trials for paediatric lymphoma, particularly as it is relatively rare. It is also difficult to test new drugs in children particularly when we do not know the long-term side-effects. As such it is a real accomplishment when we do get trials running and with that in mind I am particularly excited to be involved in the International paediatric B-NHL clinical trial. Children will be receiving a drug called rituximab, a form of immunotherapy which up until now has been mostly restricted to adult patients. The success of this dug in adults bodes well for our children and I look forward to seeing the results of this trial. I am also excited and honoured to be involved in the planning stages of future paediatric NHL clinical trials within Europe and world-wide. I hope that we can speed up the time it takes to get new agents into clinical trials for children.


What’s been a highlight for you working with LLR?

LLR have funded my research for the past 15 years, initially as a postdoctoral research associate, then as a Bennett Fellow and now as an LLR Senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge. I will always be grateful to the LLR and its army of fundraisers for supporting my career and research. LLR often feels like a family rather than a business as so many charities become. There is a community of scientists, patients and staff at the charity that all work together towards a shared common goal of improving the lives of people diagnosed with blood cancers.


A question from our Facebook Page; how does research establish if certain rogue genes are genetic or hereditary?

When researchers work with tumour specimens they try to match their findings with ‘normal’ tissue taken from the same patient. Usually, this can be peripheral blood which is unaffected by the cancer of which the genetics are compared to that seen in the tumour. Somatic mutations, i.e. those that have arisen in the tumour will only be seen in the tumour whereas inherited ones would also be seen in the healthy tissue.  Of course this can be difficult to determine in blood cancers where blood is also the source of the disease, in this case we try to examine the healthy cells which are separated from the diseased ones.


What are your personal goals in terms of research?

I hope to establish a centre for research into paediatric cancers in Cambridge, specifically focussing on Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Whilst many children are cured of their disease, too many still suffer from disease relapse and in some cases do not make it through the other side. In addition, current therapies are toxic and leave treated children with health problems that persist well into their adult lives.  I am certain that in my lifetime through concentrated efforts we will be able to improve the outlook of affected children so that all those diagnosed with NHL survive and go on to lead healthy lives.


Tell us more about Suzanne!

Besides being a scientist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge I am the Mother of an 11 year old girl who keeps me pretty busy. If I do have some spare time I like to go to the gym or shopping but the latter tends to win out – a girl can never have too many shoes!

 

 

Click here to find out more about non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Comments

10.06.2015

Thanks Suzanne - a great insight in to your work which sounds fascinating. Really glad to have you as part of the Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research family! Caitlin 

10.06.2015

I share your passion for less toxic therapies, thank you so much for all that you do Suzanne.

Cathy

Anonymous
13.06.2015

Is any reseach being done for berties lyphomas of the skin my husband was scc told he had it in febuary x

Anonymous
13.06.2015

Berties lyphomas of the skin my husband was diognosed in feb this year