Building a research workforce: Dr Hayley Whitaker

First walking into Hammersmith hospital in the late 90s, Hayley Whitaker could feel there was something different in the air. “I’d never been somewhere where the research and the hospital were on the same site,” she recalls. “I can remember coming away excited about the place and the concept of that interaction.”

Hammersmith hospital was where the Prostate Cancer Charity (which later became Prostate Cancer UK) was set up to fund researchers there to specialise in tackling this under recognised disease.

“When I first started, nobody knew anything about prostate cancer. In terms of translational research, there was no-one doing it.”

Translational research, which focuses on bridging the gap between the lab and the hospital, has become central to Hayley’s efforts to improve diagnosis of prostate cancer.

The charity funded Hayley’s PhD research with Professor Charlotte Bevan at Hammersmith before she then moved to Cambridge to work with Professor David Neal.

“I realised the huge advantage of being based there and having a surgeon as the group leader was that we had this amazing access to prostate samples that no-one was using.”

“The big question then was around diagnosis and no-one was doing a great deal on that. So, I said I wanted to look for new markers for disease and take advantage of the great access to human samples that we had.”

While there, she developed a test which established a protein called MSMB as a reliable marker for prostate cancer. MSMB can be found in the blood and is now used in experimental blood tests, such as Stockholm-3, which could replace the unreliable PSA test for diagnosing prostate cancer.

From lab bench to clinic 

MSMB was Hayley’s first biomarker and Prostate Cancer UK continued to support her as she worked to find more. Her approach is to understand what it is that clinicians need and try to meet that.

“Most people will start with the basic research, which leads to the translational and the clinical research. We start from the other end and we say ‘what’s the clinical problem?’ and we’ll look at the data or samples. When we find something that we think is meaningful, we can try to understand mechanistically why it is that way and that goes back to the basic science. We reverse engineer it.”

“One of the first things I learnt is that clinicians ask different questions to the scientists. They want to know if a new test is specific and if there are false positives. I used that to develop a pipeline to get a biomarker from the bench to the clinic.”

“My approach was always to take a very hard line. A test has to be super robust if it’s going to get to clinic. You need something that will work the same today and the next day and next week.”

A new way to look at diagnosing prostate cancer

Her work at the time helped her to develop the skills and reputation to work independently and she moved to UCL to run her own lab.

“Prostate Cancer UK were really supportive when I started to set up my own group, which allowed me to do the work I’m doing now.”

“At that time, MRI was becoming a big thing and I could see that it was going to be the future. It was obvious to me that the way forward for diagnosing early prostate cancer was combining MRI with biomarkers.”

That was the basis for the INNOVATE study, which is being funded by Prostate Cancer UK.

Combined expertise, for a focus on the patient

Hayley brings together expertise from across research and medicine, including pathologists, radiologists, oncologists and urologists. “We work really closely together but it can be difficult – it’s like we’re speaking different languages at times.”

“We go to the multidisciplinary team meetings, where clinicians make decisions, and we can have those discussions and say ‘why are you giving that patient that treatment rather than that treatment?’ or ‘If you knew this piece of information, which we might be able to find, would that make an impact?’ You can see how your work fits into the bigger picture.”

“The reason we do it is because we want to have an impact on the patient. If we find something that’s truly amazing, we say how can we exploit that to make the best use of it.”

This focus on patients is one of the ways that Hayley keeps up her motivation.

“I’m part of a prostate cancer support group and it’s lovely speaking with them. But if anything happens to them it really means something. That’s easy to forget if you’re at the lab bench all the time.”

Above Hayley’s desk is a framed letter from Kevin Webber, a dedicated Prostate Cancer UK supporter who has advanced prostate cancer. “I’ve said to the team: on those days when nothing works and it’s all horrible, we’ll read that and remember why we do it.”

Growing the next generation of prostate cancer researchers 

Hayley has built up her team of researchers with the mix of clinical and scientific backgrounds that you might expect from her approach to her work.

“New researchers will look for new things and approach the problem in a very different way. Sometimes you do have to try something new. If we hadn’t challenged what was ‘known’ in the past, we wouldn’t have had the same progress that we see today.”

“I used to be 100 per cent at the lab bench. Now I do a lot more writing grant applications and managing the team. I don’t miss that lab work, because I know that my job is to facilitate the work of my team and to make sure they have everything they need to do their job properly.

“I know that I’ve only got these two hands, but now I’ve got seven people and that’s fourteen hands. I can achieve so much more by managing that team than I could do on my own.

“I love developing them, taking someone who’s a great scientist and giving them the other skills they require to become an independent researcher.”

“I remember when we started breast cancer research had all the money and all the knowledge. I was possibly a little resentful of that and thought why doesn’t prostate cancer research get that same kind of money?

“Now, as time’s gone on, we’ve followed in the footsteps of breast cancer research and we’ve learnt from their mistakes and their successes. So we’ve progressed prostate cancer research much, much faster by being able to learn from what they’ve done.

“It has worked to our advantage but it’s taken a while to get there.”