Research
19 Apr 2021

Dr. Susan Heavey is demystifying cancer research by giving us a look inside the lab.

And this week you can join her for a virtual cuppa.

Your continued support allows us to fund the brightest scientists like Dr. Susan Heavey throughout their careers. We invest long-term in their valuable years of experience with prostate cancer research to have the greatest impact for men.

Now Dr. Heavey and her colleagues are sharing their experience beyond the lab to educate and inspire the public.

Dr. Heavey joined us as a recipient of our Travelling Fellowship Award, which provides an opportunity for outstanding early-career researchers to develop in the best research environments in the UK and overseas. Dr Heavey’s work on 3D modelling and testing treatments on real human prostates within the lab has the potential for life-changing results for men with prostate cancer. Alongside her busy research career, she’s also educating the public about the reality of cancer research, demystifying the science and giving us a look inside the lab.

Ahead of her appearance at our Funding the Future: Virtual Cuppa, we caught up with Dr Heavey to talk about what motivates her to beat prostate cancer, and her passion for communicating complex science to the public.

How have you found your experience of the Travelling Prize Fellowship?

It's been an incredible opportunity to develop as an independent researcher. It allowed me to travel to the USA and Sweden to learn cutting-edge techniques, and implement them in my newly established research group in the Centre for 3D Models of Health and Disease at University College London (UCL). I’m forever grateful to all you fantastic supporters – so thank you to everyone reading!

What are you working on right now?

I'm using donated specimens of human prostate tumours to test new drugs and better understand prostate cancer itself. We’re using some fun new techniques like ‘spatial transcriptomics’ (combining information about the genes with information about their location) which gives researchers huge amounts of molecular data to play with. This helps us improve our understanding of how these new drugs will impact prostate tumours.

Tell us more about the educational videos about cancer research you’re making with your friend Dr. Hayley Pye.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet hundreds of prostate cancer patients through my research projects, mostly when inviting them to take part in our work and donate specimens to us. Many have excellent questions about our research, having read about it online or in the news. But without fail, they’ll always ask what is research ‘really’ like – do we work in futuristic, spotless, CSI-style labs using augmented reality goggles and lasers? Or beautiful musty old wooden labs with specimens in jars on display in antique cabinets?

The truth involves elements of both, but mostly is a bit more mundane. I like to actually show them what real labs look like and what real researchers work on. That was the key motivator to start the ‘Cancer Research Demystified’ (CRD) YouTube channel with Dr. Hayley Pye a few years ago. We’re still going strong, and most of our work for CRD is directly answering questions we’ve been asked by patients.

I’ve always been driven to help cancer patients in particular, as we have a lot of cancer in my own family. Unfortunately, my dad died recently of cancer, and he remains a big motivator in my life and career.
Dr. Susan Heavey

Cancer Research Demystified has gone from strength to strength, with thousands of engagements across YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn and more. We now have around 100,000 people interact with us each month across our various online channels, which is surreal. It’s been particularly fulfilling to also attend some events offline in the ‘real world’ with support groups, schools and hospitals, meeting patients face-to-face. We’ve also won some awards for our work from UCL and Prostate Cancer UK, which we were delighted about – but the crowning achievement for us is when patients send us messages with really astute research questions that they formed after watching one of our videos. That makes it worth all the hard work!

Watch Dr. Heavey and Dr. Pye explain how they use 3D printed prostate moulds in the lab...

What's made you so passionate about prostate cancer research?

It’s about both scientific discovery and personal motivation. I’ve always been driven to help cancer patients in particular, as we have a lot of cancer in my own family. Unfortunately, my dad died recently of cancer, and he remains a big motivator in my life and career.

Academia is a tough job, and lab work can be a bit unforgiving – sometimes you spend weeks or months on something that fails at the last step, and you need to start all over again. If you didn’t have the patients and their families in your mind and heart at a time like that, it would be much harder to get straight back to the bench.


Join Dr. Heavey this Thursday at Funding the Future: Virtual Cuppa

Learn more about her exciting work testing new prostate cancer drugs and targeting a specific gene involved in prostate cancer development. You'll also learn about the impact of leaving a gift in your Will and how it has sustained projects like Dr Heavey’s throughout the pandemic. Dr. Heavey will be joined by a Specialist Nurse from our award-winning support service to answer any questions you might have. Register to attend on 22 April at 11am, here.

Your regular gifts allow us to fund the brightest and best minds to build a future where nobody has to worry about prostate cancer.