Carving out a research niche in early detection: Charlie Massie, Career Development Fellow

Areesha Saif
Blood test sample from Wellcome Images

Dr Charlie Massie is a Junior Group Leader in the Early Detection Programme at the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Centre and a CRUK Career Development Fellowship (CDF) holder. He is using his bioinformatics and cancer genomics experience to develop tests that will distinguish at an early stage potentially lethal prostate cancer and benign or indolent lesions. 

Charlie is at the ‘Establishing independence’ stage in our Competency Framework for Fellowships, and here he explains how he demonstrated in his application the skills and experience we expect of researchers at this point in their careers. He also tells us how our CDF puts him in an excellent position to move from translational research to prospective clinical trials and ultimately clinical implementation.

Career stage: establishing independence

I’d been working for a couple of years on circulating tumour DNA in an excellent research group led by Dr Nitzan Rosenfeld at the CRUK Cambridge Institute. I continued to be involved in DNA methylation analysis within the UK Prostate International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) working group. I was developing project ideas that pulled these two strands of work together and realised that the only way to implement them was to move on to the next stage of my research career and set up my own independent research programme.  

After talking to the CRUK Research Careers team, I applied for a CDF. I originally thought I might not be suitable for the CDF as I’d had a couple of periods of medical leave, which meant several years had elapsed since I’d completed my PhD. Instead I found that CRUK is really flexible and supports researchers to apply for the right fellowship for their career stage.

CRUK is looking for a few things in a potential fellow: your track record, your plans, your research environment and your skills in areas such as scientific development, leadership and communication.

Research experience: developing my own research ideas

While working in the Rosenfeld group, I became interested in testing whether DNA methylation analysis could be applied to circulating tumour DNA (ctDNA) in blood and urine to detect prostate cancer. I had a strong desire to follow through with this research idea, which I believed had potential as a non-invasive method to detect potentially lethal forms of prostate cancer at an early stage. I was drawn to CRUK as a funder because it prioritises translating discovery studies into clinical practice, and that's where I see my future career. 

When I applied for the CDF, I was fortunate enough to have been part of some interesting collaborations and projects that had generated several outputs, such as papers from the work I did as part of the UK Prostate ICGC working group and reviews on ctDNA. I had taken on teaching roles in postgraduate courses and given talks at international symposia. This helped me gain experience in presenting in front of different audiences, including lay communities, postgraduate students and specialists at conferences. 

Future research ambitions: developing a low-cost, minimally invasive liquid biopsy test

In the future, we’d like to be able to stratify patients with prostate cancer non-invasively according to their disease risk. This would inform treatment decisions and minimise the use of invasive procedures for men with low-risk disease. This is important because currently we, in the healthcare sector, are doing a very poor job working out which men have high-risk prostate cancer.

Our approach is to use information from large-scale genomic studies, such as the CRUK-funded ICGC prostate cancer study, to design highly sensitive, multi-parameter assays to profile blood and urine samples. 

My long-term vision is to validate our diagnostic methods in a clinical trial – something I’m exploring in collaboration with the CRUK Cambridge Centre Early Detection Programme, led by Dr Sarah Bohndiek and Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald.

I’m fortunate to have mentors around me, like Rebecca, who are fantastic role models and who gave me the intellectual freedom to explore and develop my own ideas. Rebecca has identified a set of markers for oesophageal cancer and completed early-stage diagnostic trials, and this is somewhere I hope we can get to in the next 5–10 years for prostate cancer. Taking advice from someone who’s been there and done it has been extremely useful in helping me avoid some pitfalls and work towards my future goals. 

Skills: honing leadership and communication skills

Being given more academic freedom and responsibility by my group leader, Dr Rosenfeld, allowed me to hone my leadership and team skills. I was able to demonstrate this in my application by showing evidence of formal and informal supervision of PhD students as well as teaching responsibilities. In addition, I made sure I took the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) Group Leader Management Course, where I learned essential management and supervision skills. 

I had also been given the opportunity to present at the European Association for Cancer Research (EACR) annual meeting, which was a great experience. Since then, I’ve also participated in public outreach and given talks at CRUK events. Seeing the enthusiasm in patients and donor groups after sharing our research and the direction it’s heading in was a humbling experience.

Looking to the future: innovating through collaborations

Two years into my fellowship, I’ve realised that while it is relatively easy to come up with a research proposal with a clearly defined timeline, things might be very different in reality. The first year was tough because we had to get everything going, but we’re making good progress now and beginning to deliver on our proposed research plan on the molecular stratification of early-stage prostate cancer. I’ve learnt a lot about making critical decisions and prioritising what is most time-sensitive to my research. 

Since my fellowship, I’ve also secured a CRUK Early Detection Innovation Award. I am working with a team of engineers to develop a proof-of-concept idea for enriching ctDNA samples to improve the sensitivity and specificity of a liquid biopsy diagnostic test for prostate cancer. It’s been very exciting to brainstorm innovative ideas with people from different backgrounds to tackle challenging clinical questions in early detection of cancer. 

My CRUK fellowship is an important step towards addressing unanswered questions in the diagnosis of early-stage cancer, so I’m very grateful to have received CRUK’s support.

Career profile: Dr. Charles Massie

2017–2023: CRUK Career Development Fellow, Group Leader, Early Detection Programme, CRUK Cambridge Centre

2015–2017: Senior Research Associate, Molecular and Computational Diagnostics, CRUK Cambridge Institute

2013–2014: Bioinformatics Research Associate, CRUK Cambridge Institute, CRUK and University of Cambridge

2010–2013: Research Associate, Haematology, University of Cambridge

2005–2010: Research Associate, Urology, University of Cambridge

2005: PhD in oncology, University of Cambridge

2000–2001: Research Assistant, Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Oncology Unit, Edinburgh University

2000: BSc in Biological Sciences, Institute of Life and Earth Sciences, Heriot Watt University

 

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