Teamwork and support are key ingredients for success in many walks of life – and it’s no different in the lab. In this blog, Sophie Lutter meets a researcher who we’ve helped take a big step up in his career, and chats to his mentor. Together, they are working on a project they hope will one day spot whether a man has aggressive or non-aggressive prostate cancer – one of the most important issues to crack in the fight against prostate cancer.
Back in November last year (2014), Dr Jason Webber (below centre right) took a step into the unknown. A postdoctoral scientist (a scientist with a PhD, who works in a research lab), he was in the same laboratory at the Velindre Hospital in Cardiff that he’d been working in for the last six years. But from that moment on, the buck stopped with him.
Dr Webber is one of only 20 per cent of postdoctoral scientists around the world to make the jump from being part of a team to leading one. And that’s what our Movember-funded Career Development Fellowship has allowed him to do. We’re investing in the next generation of prostate cancer experts to make sure prostate cancer research is a priority in the UK for years to come.
It’s not an easy leap to make, and support from your team makes a big difference. I met up with Dr Webber and his former post-doctoral supervisor and now mentor, Dr Aled Clayton (above right), to hear a bit more about his first few months in the hot seat.
Aled: Our research is exclusively focused on tiny, membrane-enclosed ‘bubbles’ found outside the cell, called exosomes, particularly in prostate cancer. Exosomes are so small (much, much smaller than cells) that normal microscopes can’t see them – we need special equipment to detect them.
But just because they’re small, doesn’t mean they aren’t important. In fact, they’re a key part of how diseases start and get worse over time. Historically there’s been a lot of doubt about this. But there’s now increasingly compelling evidence of exosomes being important in the development of various diseases including cancer, neurological diseases and cardiovascular disease. And we’re helping to build the case for exosomes as targets we can one day develop drugs against.
Basically, we want to get to grips with the nitty gritty molecular mechanisms of prostate cancer and find opportunities for new types of treatment. Biomarkers (like exosomes) are a fundamental part of this.
Jason: My team will be looking at the role exosomes play in rearranging the tissue surrounding a prostate tumour, which is sometimes called the stroma.
We know that when prostate cancer starts to become resistant to hormone therapy, and to spread outside the prostate, the structure of the stroma changes. Nobody knows exactly how that happens yet, but we’ve recently discovered that a type of molecule called HSPGs may be involved.
HSPGs are found on the surface of exosomes secreted from prostate cancer cells. We think the amount of HSPGs on the surface of exosomes is linked to how aggressive the prostate cancer is. So measuring this should give us a way to tell the difference between men with aggressive disease, and men with slow-growing, less dangerous, prostate cancers.
Over the next five years, I’ll be developing a technique to measure how many HSPGs there are on exosomes, and testing how well it works.
Aled: The end goal of all our work is a blood or urine test to check whether a man has aggressive or non-aggressive prostate cancer. At the moment it’s too early to tell whether this is something we could use for diagnosing aggressive prostate cancer, or after diagnosis, to predict what the outcome of a man’s cancer might be. Either way, we hope that our research will eventually improve the lives of men with prostate cancer.
Aled: To some extent, the field you choose to specialise in is a matter of what’s practical and possible. Prostate cancer is a big focus of this hospital. But from a personal perspective, I have a dad in his 70s. We speak every Sunday, and it seems at the moment he’s been to a funeral a week. His age puts him at risk of prostate cancer – and it’s heading my way too. It’s good to be doing something about it.
Jason: For me, it’s in part the challenge of prostate cancer research. There are so many things we don’t know, even about the differences between healthy and disease states, aggressive and non-aggressive disease. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to do.
Jason: It’s exciting, but a bit daunting too. The best thing is having the freedom to pursue my own interests, and to increase my research contribution. Going from being part of a team to leading a team will open more avenues, get new people in, let us do more. But that means I’m now responsible for building my ideas into a coherent goal for the group and to fit in overall with the field.
The biggest challenge will probably be getting used to managing people. It’s a big gear shift, and there are high expectations to meet. I want to make sure that over the next five years, I return your support by having something good to show for it.
I’m extremely lucky to work closely with Aled, and also others like Professor Malcolm Mason (Cardiff University) and Professor Guido Jenster (Erasmus MC), who I can bounce ideas off, and whose experiences I can learn from. Mentoring is really important in the scientific career path; there’s always someone more senior than you who’s had to go through exactly the same thing. If they’re on hand to advise and support you, it’s easier than starting completely from scratch.
It is rewarding when someone you’ve supervised is awarded a big grant like this and sets up their own lab, but it’s sad too. I need to find another data collection workhorse now! We’re lucky that we work well together and haven’t fallen out. That sometimes happens, because in some respects, you might become competitors now. But I’ll coach Jason in any way I can. The academic career path can be a bit of a nightmare, and you need all the support you can get!
Aled: Mainly at conferences and things really. We’ll all be away together for a few days, and there’s more of a social aspect. We’ll have a beer and put the world to rights. And probably talk some nonsense about amazing experiments we’ve dreamed up that we could never actually do.
Jason: Someone you can be honest with, and go to for advice.
Aled: Someone you can trust.
And on that positive note, thank you both for taking the time to speak to us. It was great to meet you, and we’re looking forward to hearing what the next few years brings for you all. Good luck!
Some of the most valuable players in Men United are experts who treat men in hospital but also investigate prostate cancer in the lab – academic clinicians. But it's a long and difficult road to become an expert in both areas. So we’ve teamed up with the Academy of Medical Sciences to award Starter Grants for Clinical Lecturers, funded by the Movember Foundation. Mr Alastair Lamb, a specialist registrar in urology, is the first to receive this grant. Sophie Lutter asks why he's so dedicated to combining research with a clinical career and the challenges in balancing the two.