A Day in the Life: Alex Tonks, acute myeloid leukaemia researcher
Alex Tonks is a Bloodwise-funded researcher who is exploring the role of molecules called reactive oxygen species in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). Below, Alex tells us about the exciting research he leads at Cardiff University, his work training the next generation of cancer researchers, and his love of martial arts.
How did you become a blood cancer researcher?
From an early age, I had three passions. Art! Martial art! And the art of science. I quickly realised that to excel in any one of these I would have to devote more time to one discipline. I always liked maths and science and it was these interests that led me to study Biomedical Sciences, and then a PhD in Pulmonary Immunology. I now lead a group of researchers at Cardiff University, where my job title is ‘Reader’. Whilst a group leader can have many names including Principal Investigator, Professor, and more, Reader is perhaps one of the less descriptive ones! My dad used to joke that I now have a job reading comic books. He was not far wrong – there is a lot of reading – but that is to help me research the causes of blood cancer and identify new treatments. My dad sadly passed away last year of cancer, but I think he would be proud of our achievements.
Cardiff University’s AML Translational Research Group in 2017
Co-led by Richard Darley (third from left) and Alex Tonks (right)
What are you working on at the moment?
I have been working with Professor Richard Darley for 17 years, ever since I completed my PhD. We run several projects on acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) together at Cardiff University. One of these is funded by Bloodwise and investigates how cell-damaging agents called reactive oxygen species (ROS; by-products made when oxygen is used by cells) can signal leukaemia cells to grow and survive. In healthy cells, ROS levels are steadily maintained so they don’t cause any damage. But in cancer cells, ROS levels are high and help fuel the growth and progression of the disease. We are developing therapies that prevent blood cancers from producing ROS or preventing cancer that is using ROS to grow.
Sources of reactive oxygen by-products such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2): Chemicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS), like superoxide (O2-) are normally produced by the cell as a result of metabolism. NOX enzymes on or in the cell can also produce ROS. Cancer cells can use ROS to grow and survive.
Why do we need the research you do?
Current treatment for many cancers including AML is toxic and can have very serious side effects such as heart problems and secondary cancers. Over 2400 new cases of AML are diagnosed each year in the UK and many of these patients endure unpleasant treatments which are sadly not always successful. We have improved the treatment of AML over the last 30 years but we know we can do better, so I and many other researchers are working on identifying new targets for treatment. If we can understand how blood cells use ROS to grow then we can look for ways to target this weakness by using drugs that are currently used to treat other conditions, or design new ones.
We are currently developing and testing our ideas (hypotheses) using cells grown in the lab to see if targeting the ROS pathway has any beneficial effects. By analysing the data from these experiments we can generate further ideas, treatment strategies, and diagnostic information. My work will hopefully lay the foundation for new treatments.
Flow cytometry: This is a technique that can analyse properties of single cancer cells. Technology today is so advanced that some of our machines can analyse hundreds of thousands of cells in seconds. I spend a lot of my time looking at dots! Each dot represents a cell and the position of the dot on the graph tells me how much of a particular protein is in that cell.
What is the most interesting thing you've found out in your current Bloodwise-funded project?
All cells in the body break down sugar to provide fuel for their survival and growth, but cancer cells have become particularly good at using it for their own gains – this is called the Warburg effect. The Warburg effect allows cancer cells to break down sugar in a different way from healthy cells, which supports their uncontrolled growth. We have known about the Warburg effect for a long-time, but through our studies we now know that ROS plays a key role in this process, and instructs the cell to use sugar in a different way to normal cells. This means we can come up with new ideas to correct the Warburg effect by targeting aspects of sugar metabolism.
How do you balance the demands of research with the demands of teaching?
Teaching is a favourite part of my job. Nurturing early career researchers to do well in their job is a big part of my role. I am fortunate that a lot of my teaching is still based in the laboratory working side by side with students. However, I must balance this with ensuring our research is progressing including administration, reading, writing, reviewing etc. The only way to really balance the scales is to work those extra hours - which is why my sons call me “Maptop”: half man, half laptop.
What common misconceptions do people have about your job?
I think many people believe academics do mostly teaching and have a lot of time off in the summer! The reality is, we usually devote a considerable amount of time (in and outside normal working hours) to many roles within the university. Whilst I am principally a scientist and educator, I also need to be an administrator, copy editor, mentor, accountant, etc. – though being an academic is a collaborative effort and I am lucky to work with many colleagues including support staff and technicians.
Researchers at work in Alex Tonks' lab at Cardiff University
What's your favourite thing about your work?
I enjoy the variable nature of the role, the scientific experiments themselves and the collaborative nature of my work. This week began with teaching my two PhD students how to isolate stem cells from blood. This is critical so we can follow the development of these stem cells as they grow into blood cells. I also hosted an event showcasing the research of the post-graduate students (PGR) within the Cardiff Cancer research community, where I talked with over 40 students about their research. The following days were mainly meetings (scientific and strategic), working at my desk, or in the lab discussing experiments with my team. At the end of the week I met with a collaborator, and finished by reading 17 applications from potential students to study for a PhD in my group!
Rachael Nicholson is a PhD student who has just begun her studies. We are discussing how to isolate blood stem cells from blood. I am so fortunate to work with students like Rachael who also have the passion and dedication for research.
What do you do when you're not at work?
Work-life balance is very important, and I like to spend as much spare time as I can with my family. Most of that time is spent doing taekwondo with my two young sons, Ryan and Nathan.
Is there anything you'd like to say to Bloodwise supporters?
Those that are involved with Bloodwise will know that this is a fantastic community of varied individuals from patients to researchers and supporters. I am so grateful to this community, especially the patients, supporters and fundraisers. Without the tireless fundraising efforts blood cancer research would not be as advanced as it is now. Similarly, my (our) research would not be possible without the brave patients who have donated their blood. Great research is a partnership and by working together we will beat blood cancer.
Research like Alex’s can only happen thanks to support from you. Find out more about how you can help us continue our live-saving research.Find out more about the AML research we fund.If you would like more information and support around AML or any blood cancer, you can read our Online Patient Information, or speak to one of the Support Line Team on Freephone 0808 2080 888 (Monday-Friday 10am-4pm) or firstname.lastname@example.org.You can follow Alex on Twitter.We’ll be back soon with another day in the life.