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Debbie is one of the researchers that is funded by Children’s Cancer North at Newcastle University’s Centre for Cancer. When you meet her, you can instantly tell how passionate she is about her work, and what it means to be working at the cutting edge of research. We asked Debbie a few questions about her working life and what it is that makes her tick…

What is your area of research/focus?

 

My main area of research is in Medulloblastoma – the most common malignant brain tumour found in children. My work involves understanding the disease at a molecular level (known as the Molecular Pathology). If I can understand the molecular alterations that occur when the disease develops, then treatments can be more personalised.

Nowadays around 70% of patients survive their medulloblastoma diagnosis, however the aggressive nature of cancer treatment can leave survivors with life-limiting ‘late-effects’.

My research aims to not only promote continued increases in medulloblastoma survival rates, but to also reduce the treatment-associated late-effect burden in medulloblastoma (and other childhood cancer) survivors by understanding its key drivers and developing interventions to reduce its impact.

Why did you get in to researching childhood cancer?

 

Childhood cancer treatment walks a bit of a perilous tightrope. Not enough treatment, or use of the wrong treatment won’t deliver the high survival rates that of course we must insist on achieving for patients and their families. But too much treatment, or the wrong treatment, is a bad thing too as we have already talked about in terms of the late-effect burden carried by survivors of childhood cancer. The sweet spot comes when we can give just enough of the right treatment, at the right time.

I have always had a huge fascination with molecular biology; the genetic complexity of cancer is so extensive it has the power to both enthral and boggle the mind, simultaneously! There are huge advances to be gained from using molecular information to define this sweet spot, and as a molecular biologist I can’t think of a more personally rewarding area in which to conduct my research.

What hopes do you have for the future of cancer treatment?

 

I hope that by identifying the Achilles heel in each and every child’s tumour we move away from ‘one-size-fits-all’ cancer treatments and towards kinder, personalised, treatments that increase both the probability of survival and the quality of that survival.

There have been great strides on this in recent years, largely due to our ability to better characterise tumours at the biological level, but genuine personalised therapy still remains elusive to the vast majority of childhood cancer patients.

My hope is that the 100,000 Genomes Project and other such initiatives, will result in great strides forward in this area in the next decade. Until then, there is a lot of benefit to be gained from biomarker-led riskstratification. If we can use molecular alongside clinical information to decide who is at highest risk, we can maintain intensive therapies for these groups. For those in low risk groups, therapy could be de-escalated to minimise the late-effect burden.

What does being funded by Children’s Cancer North mean to you?

 

I am really passionate about the work I do and its power to help children with cancer. To be given the opportunity to put this passion into practice is a privilege and a great personal honour. This role has enabled me to access further funding and grow a team, which means we can do more research, and ultimately help more children.

What makes you tick outside of work?

 

Outside of work more recently, I have quite an unwelcome alter-ego as a cancer patient. I wouldn’t recommend it, but my own personal experience has given me a fresh perspective on what it means to be diagnosed with cancer, undergo treatment and live with its consequences. We all know this deep down, but it’s brought into sharp focus that it’s vitally important to do the things you love and bring you joy, and for me that’s being outside, cooking, (trying to) travel, ferrying my children about to their sporting activities and spending time with my family.

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