How did you become interested in blood cancer research?
From an early age I was very interested in biology. I studied biomedical health and life sciences at University College Dublin, which I loved. I went on to take up some fantastic blood cancer research positions in labs in Boston, which strengthened my desire to lead on my own research. As a result, I applied and was accepted onto the Bloodwise Gordon Piller PhD programme in Dr David Vetrie’s lab, a crucial step in order to pursue my goal of becoming a leukaemia researcher.
What are you working on?
I work on a rare type of blood cancer called chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). The disease usually affects people over 60 years, though it can also affect younger people.
The disease starts when a blood stem cell, which is normally responsible for making all the different types of cells in the blood, acquires a specific genetic fault and turns into a leukemic stem cell. These cells cause and maintain the cancer, and are more difficult to kill than the cells they make.
This image shows cells from a person with CML which have been fluorescently labelled using a technique called FISH (Fluorescent In Situ Hybridisation). This tests for a genetic fault called the Philadelphia chromosome (in yellow, circled) that can cause CML.
Using many different approaches, researchers working on CML in Glasgow are trying to kill the leukaemia stem cells so that the disease can be cured. Two important proteins that help leukaemia stem cells survive are EZH2 and BCL6. We believe that by blocking the effects of EZH2 and BCL6, we could eradicate these stem cells.
In my PhD, I study the relationship between EZH2 and BCL6, and how drugs that block both of these proteins could lead to a cure for CML. Our lab has made great progress in researching how EZH2 works to keep the leukaemia stem cells alive, and drugs that block EZH2 could now potentially be tested in CML clinical trials.
This image is from an experiment using a technique called Western blotting, which I use to detect levels of BCL6 protein in CML cells.. We treat the cells with certain drugs to increase BCL6 protein levels (you can see the increase in intensity of the black bands), so that we can better study the effect BCL6 expression has on the leukaemia stem cells.
Why is your research needed?
Currently CML accounts for 8% of all leukaemias in the UK. However, CML is becoming more common, because while current drugs (tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs) are effective at controlling the disease, they are unable to cure it. This is because TKIs are not able to kill the leukaemia stem cells. If CML isn’t cured, patients risk developing resistance to current therapies and progressing to later stages of the disease, which are more severe, and for which there are currently limited therapeutic options.
The overall aim of our research is to fully cure CML, as opposed to managing a chronic illness, which requires lifelong treatment with ever increasing cost and side effects.
What do you do in the lab on a day-to-day basis?
No two days are the same when you work in a lab. Some days I sit at my desk analysing data, preparing for meetings, reading papers and writing reports. On other days I hardly have time to sit down as I am in the lab doing experiments all day.
General lab work consists of a lot of measuring, pipetting small amounts, preparing solutions and cells for experiments, and using lots of different instruments and techniques to better understand what is happening to the leukaemia stem cells.
This image shows an analysis of cell death, using a technique called flow cytometry. Untreated CML cells are on the left, and those treated with a drug are on the right. Using flow cytometry, we are able to measure cell death, by staining the cells with coloured dyes. Dead cells will become stained with these dyes, and appear in the top right quadrant. As you can see, there are more dead cells in the treated group than the untreated group.
Working in biology means that experiments often have to be carried out at funny times, running late into the evening or the weekends, as I need to treat cells for a specific number of hours. The project consumes a lot of my time, but I do my best to keep time free to enjoy a good work-life balance; especially at the weekends when I like to meet friends or go hill walking.
What impact does your research have for people living with blood cancer?
The drugs we’ve identified have the potential to be taken into clinical trials where patients can receive these new drugs, in combination with current therapies, hopefully improving their response and reducing disease progression. Our work in Glasgow has had a profound effect on the CML community both at a local and international level, as we try to understand more about the mechanisms underlying the biology of the leukaemia stem cell.
What common misconceptions do people have about your work?
Many people assume working in a lab is boring but as I’ve mentioned above, it can be really varied! We do a lot of open days in our building, so members of the public can visit and see what type of work we do. We also have young students in from primary schools, and it’s great to see their enthusiasm for science, as they ask lots of questions.
It’s also important for me to help inspire other women to work in science, as we are often under-represented in many fields in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
What's your favourite thing about your work?
It’s very challenging; doing a PhD really pushes you to think about what experiments you need to do to answer your research questions. I also love the variation of lab life; running around the lab or sitting at my desk doing various tasks. It helps that I can plan my own day and fit everything I need to do around meetings with my supervisor or seminars, where I present my research and find out about other people’s.
I also like working with lots of people, attending courses to learn new techniques and hearing about other research within my institute and in other cancer labs around the world when I attend conferences.
What's one of the hardest things about your work?
It’s inevitable in research that occasionally experiments do not work out for whatever reason, or sometimes, experiments that have worked previously just stop working when you try and repeat them. It is difficult to stay motivated when these things don’t work out after several attempts. You just have to keep reminding yourself that it will work out and perseverance is important!
What do you get up to when you’re not in the lab?
I love exploring the highlands, hill walking and running, and have done the Isle of Skye half marathon. I often travel around Scotland, and being based in Glasgow is perfect for that.
What’s next for you?
I am currently in my third year of a four year PhD; primarily I plan to finish my PhD in one piece!
Following my PhD I would like to continue to work in blood cancer research, as I find it so interesting and can see how my research could make a difference to people living with blood cancer. I would also love to work more abroad; I love living in new cities, experiencing new cultures and learning from new people.
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to Bloodwise supporters?
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to undertake a PhD funded by Bloodwise, which I have found very rewarding and enjoyable. We are making great strides in treating CML, and it is very satisfying to see our work being translated from the lab bench to clinical trials, and the widespread benefit this has to the CML patient community.
Advancing our knowledge of cancer and how to treat it can only be done through research, and there is no doubt our work here at University of Glasgow is contributing significantly to that aim. Without your support, the work that we do wouldn’t be possible. Thank you!
We’ll be back soon with another day in the life feature from a different researcher. In the meantime, find out more about how you can help us fight CML.