Reasons to be thankful: 5 US researchers on their work to defeat cancer

Cancer Research UK
Clockwise from top left: Dr Nate Goehring, Dr Thea Tlsty, Dr Caitlin Brennan, Dr Kimmie Ng and Dr Hadley Sheppard

As Thanksgiving 2020 is celebrated across the pond in a decidedly different set of circumstances due to the pandemic, five of our brilliant American researchers tell us about their pioneering science and why they’re grateful to work in cancer research.

Dr Nate Goehring

Group leader, Polarity and Patterning Networks Laboratory, Francis Crick Institute, London

Nate leads a multidisciplinary team of experts who aim to better understand systems within embryos that form patterns to guide the creation and specification of cells and tissues. They hope to reveal insights that could lead to ways to prevent or treat developmental defects and help explain the link between cellular organisation and cancer.

What are you most grateful for in your work to defeat cancer?

For the advantages of stable core institutional funding that allows us to follow our curiosity and pursue bold blue-sky projects that may not have been a good match for traditional grant funding. But also, core funding allowed the Crick to roll out a coronavirus testing programme earlier this year. Aside from being a huge help to frontline health workers and hospitals, internal testing of Crick staff has meant we’ve been able to return to the bench much earlier and in greater numbers than our colleagues in university labs. We’ve also been able to compensate for research delays to allow people to complete projects that might otherwise have languished if grants had run out or contracts ended. This has been a lifeline to many junior researchers and helped ensure we don’t lose a cohort of new talent.

Why is transatlantic and international collaboration so important for cancer research?

The initiatives that have most clearly impacted my own career have funded the exchange of people. Fellowships funded my own move to pursue opportunities in Europe and ultimately led me to start my own research group in London. All the best institutes I’ve worked at have been chock-full of diverse, interesting and talented people from all over the world, giving these places an excitement, vibrancy and buzz of ideas that naturally led to unexpected collaborations and new ways of thinking. I don’t think one can overestimate the catalytic effect of bringing together in one place a broad range of talented people who carry with them their unique set of ideas, experiences, perspectives and skills.

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year?

As family visits are a no-go, I guess we’ll spend a few hours catching up with everyone by video-chat and maybe swap our normal turkey for something a bit smaller! Maybe a duck?

Dr Thea Tlsty

Principal investigator of STORMing Cancer, University of California, San Francisco

Thea heads up one of the seven remarkable teams funded by our Cancer Grand Challenges initiative – a global funding platform founded by Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute. Thea’s team, named STORMing Cancer, is trying to understand the changes that bring about cancers associated with chronic inflammation, which affect up to 1 in 4 people with cancer around the world. They’re also taking a stealth approach to tumour destruction by targeting the cells and tissues surrounding a tumour, rather than the tumour itself. They’ll use what they learn from these experiments to develop tools to combat these lethal cancers.

What are you most grateful for in your work to defeat cancer?

That I can play a role in the exciting novel efforts to tackle some of the most important questions in cancer research. The design of Cancer Grand Challenges allows us to think big and bring in the best and brightest people from across the globe. These senior and junior colleagues are inspiring and talented – it’s humbling to work with such a crew. And I’m grateful for the chance – just the chance – to make a difference in how lethal cancers will be handled clinically in the future.

Why is transatlantic and international collaboration so important for cancer research?

Diversity is powerful. Having people from different countries with different perspectives, different resources and different concerns is very useful for an all-out approach to addressing a question – especially one as complex as cancer.

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year?

My husband and I will be staying in San Francisco and celebrating all that we have to be thankful for while at home. 

Dr Caitlin Brennan

Postdoctoral fellow, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston

Caitlin is studying how a bacterium naturally found in the mouth contributes to bowel cancer progression and spread. She’s part of the OPTIMISTICC Cancer Grand Challenges team, which is investigating how the microbiome – the collection of microbes that occupy the human body – shape outcomes for people with bowel cancer. The team’s discoveries will help to improve the diagnosis and treatment of this disease, which accounted for 1.8 million cancer diagnoses globally in 2018.

What are you most grateful for in your work to defeat cancer?

For the sense of scientific community that the Cancer Grand Challenges initiative has helped develop within my field. Rather than working on our projects separately, and often in parallel, we're making so much more progress working together. The synergy among everyone, paired with the intellectual freedom the Cancer Grand Challenges award allows, is leading us to new discoveries every day.

Why is transatlantic and international collaboration so important for cancer research?

It supports bringing the best scientists together, regardless of national boundaries. Cancer doesn't see those political differences, so neither should we as we work to defeat it.

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year?

I’ll be celebrating here in Boston as my family, who live halfway across the country, decided it wasn't prudent to travel. We've planned a cocktail and hor d'oeuvres Zoom hour to stay connected despite the distance. And I’ll possibly pop into the lab to find out the results of an exciting experiment that will wrap up that week.

Dr Kimmie Ng

Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Another member of the OPTIMISTICC Cancer Grand Challenges team, Kimmie is helping to identify dietary, molecular and genetic predictors of improved bowel cancer survival. Like Caitlin, her focus is on the microbiome and her ultimate goal is to translate findings into novel interventions for people with bowel cancer. 

What are you most grateful for in your work to defeat cancer?

The intellectual stimulation I get from working with the world’s microbiome research experts in the OPTIMISTICC team. Without the infrastructure and sustained support of the Cancer Grand Challenges initiative, I would never have had the opportunity to work with these amazing scientists to push the limits of what we can understand about the microbiome in bowel cancer, and what we can do for our patients. 

Why is transatlantic and international collaboration so important for cancer research?

The innovation and creative thinking that’s critical to accelerating cancer research can only come from the diverse perspectives and expertise of international collaboration. And for my work specifically, there is so much we still don’t know about how the microbiome and bowel cancer outcomes vary by geographic, cultural and dietary differences, which reinforces the need for international teams. 

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year? 

One of the sacrifices of being healthcare workers is that we’re unable to quarantine in order to safely gather with our older parents. So Thanksgiving will be spent with just my husband (a neuroradiologist) and two daughters, joined by my sister-in-law and niece, likely eating outdoors in the freezing New England weather! Regardless, we remain grateful for our health and all of the blessings that we have.

Dr Hadley Sheppard

Postdoctoral fellow, Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR)

Hadley’s work is shedding light on chordoma – a hard-to-treat and understudied bone cancer. She is one of four outstanding researchers to be selected for the Transatlantic Fellowship, an initiative we launched this year in partnership with the American Association for Cancer Research. While studying genetics in Houston, Hadley identified key collaborators in the UK who could help boost her research and is now working with the ICR’s Professor Paul Workman, a world leader in translational science and pharmacology.

What are you most grateful for in your work to defeat cancer?

For Cancer Research UK’s support, which allows my team to conduct cutting-edge, collaborative research. We’re hoping to identify therapies to target proteins called transcription factors, which drive chordoma progression and have historically been considered ‘undruggable’. This could not only improve outcomes for people with chordoma, but also other transcription-factor-driven cancers. The fellowship is enabling me to jump-start this work with independence, while also being supported by the ICR. I’m thrilled to have so much to learn about drug discovery and pharmacology from those around me, which is helping me develop as an innovative scientist. 

Why is transatlantic and international collaboration so important for cancer research?

Conquering cancer cannot be an individual effort. As scientists, we each have our own contributory areas of expertise and we shouldn’t hinder ourselves by geographic location. International collaboration widens the possibilities for varied approaches to solving cancer and will push us towards our goal of defeating it more rapidly.

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year?

I’ve been fortunate to be able to bubble with a neighbour who is native to the UK, so I’m looking forward to preparing a Thanksgiving dinner and sharing my culture with a new friend.

- As told to Jo Lewin, Philanthropy Editor