We (Prostate Cancer UK and Movember) have recently recruited the first Career Development Fellows to join our team of researchers fighting prostate cancer in the labs. These awards are great, because they give rising stars in prostate cancer research the opportunity to establish themselves as independent scientists and become future leaders of prostate cancer research. I went to meet our two newest fellows in their labs to find out what they've been up to.
Making the leap from postdoctoral researcher (or postdoc, a scientist with a PhD who works in a lab) to group leader (the person in charge of the lab) is tough. Worldwide, only about 20 per cent of postdocs get the funding they need to start out on their own. And running your own lab is the only way to get a permanent job in academic science – so awards like this are in high demand.
Our research strategy says that we’ll fund the best science, by the best people, in the best places. So what does ‘being the best’ mean? For these awards you need to be an expert in your field. But being a good scientist isn’t enough. You also need to have published your work in respected peer-reviewed journals, be able to work without guidance from your supervisor, and most importantly, you need an idea. Something that no-one else has done before, that will give you plenty to work on for at least the next five years. No wonder it’s tough!
I went to meet our newest fellows, Kelly Coffey at Newcastle University and Wafa Al-Jamal at the University of East Anglia (UEA), to find out what they’re going to be working on and why they’re so excited about the start of their Prostate Cancer UK fellowships.
How do you feel about starting your own lab?
Kelly: I’m really excited about pulling away to do my own research. I’ve had a small team working with me for a while, but this is completely different – the buck stops here now! I can’t wait to start. I had a really exciting day yesterday, when I interviewed for a research assistant, funded by my Prostate Cancer UK fellowship. I ended up with four really high caliber candidates!
Wafa: I moved to UEA in August to set up my lab space. Setting up your own lab is always the dream for a scientist, but it was a bit crazy in the beginning to start completely from scratch – it felt like waking up into hard reality! But now everything’s coming together, it’s really worth it. It’s a lot more responsibility – very different from the carefree aspect of doing a postdoc, but I’m really excited about starting new collaborations, interacting with new people, hiring new lab members and especially working on my own ideas!
What made you want to become a scientist?
Well, I like a good puzzle! But like many cancer biologists I have a family history of a number of cancers – the thought that one day I might be able to make a difference drives me. Also, science really grabs you as soon as you first dip your toe in. Finally getting an answer you've looking for is the best feeling in the world.
Why do you think it’s important for Prostate Cancer UK to support training awards and fellowships?
Kelly: The fellowship was really important to let me set up my own research group, and Prostate Cancer UK fits into a ‘niche’ for men’s cancers that gets swept under the carpet a bit by other charities. A lot of good scientists can get lost because it’s so difficult to get a fellowship, but it’s also good that it’s so competitive; it drives you to work hard - first to get funding and then to deserve it!
Wafa: It’s important, because it gives you both time and money to become established, and once you’ve invested 5 years in prostate cancer research, you’ll carry on! It’s like a studentship – it’s important to create links, draw people in, and train them to stay in the field.
Why did you apply for this Prostate Cancer UK fellowship?
Wafa:I used to work with different types of cancer – I hadn’t worked on prostate cancer specifically before. I saw this fellowship when I was looking around to secure funding to work on my own ideas. At the same time, one of my relatives was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and I started reading up about it. I found it very interesting that hormone therapy works for a while, but then there can be complications. At that time I thought that I could apply the knowledge I’d gained from my research in the field of cancer therapy to bring something new to the prostate cancer field.
How did you feel when you found out you’d won the award?
Kelly: I couldn’t believe it – I was jumping around! Fellowships are so hard to get. The interview was ok, but it was a shock to win – I think I was smiling for a fortnight! The whole process was definitely a brilliant experience.
Wafa: I was over the moon! It’s a good fellowship too – not just enough funding to set up and then you need to get on with it, but it also funds a technician and consumables, so now I’m really independent. It’s my idea and I can do it my way.
And finally, please can you tell us a bit about the idea you’ll be working on over the next five years, and what difference you hope it can make for men with prostate cancer?
Kelly: For the last few years, I’ve been working to find particular proteins that change how the androgen receptor (AR; the protein that promotes prostate cancer growth) works. I’ve identified a few possibilities; one of which we’ve published already. Now I’m interested in another of these proteins, called methylated KMT5A, which I hope to validate as an AR regulator protein, so that it might be possible to target it for a new drug later down the line. To do that, we need to find out what other molecules regulate KMT5A, and whether we can use those regulation molecules to change how KMT5A works, and so use a sort of a ‘back-door’ mechanism to target the androgen receptor – changing how it works by targeting the proteins that regulate it. I hope that this will one day give men with advanced prostate cancer another chance.
Wafa:My project will use nanotechnology in prostate cancer – especially in metastatic disease (cancer that has spread outside the prostate). We will develop a new delivery system, using very small structures to deliver chemotherapy drugs to the cancer. The main problems with chemotherapy at the moment are the side effects and the fact that its efficacy is limited because it doesn’t accumulate in metastatic cancer cells. I expect that this new approach of delivering the drug will increase specificity to prostate cancer cells, which I hope will reduce undesirable systemic side effects. By the end of my fellowship, I will have a new delivery system with proof of concept, which will hopefully then go into clinical trials – especially with the connection we have between the university and the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
Thanks! It was great to meet you and best of luck with the new lab, and new projects! We look forward to hearing how you get on.