From camels to sharks – thinking outside the box for new cancer treatments
We recently caught up with Dr Helen Dooley from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She is investigating a new way to overcome drug resistance in breast cancer ... with the help of sharks. Here she tells us more:
Your project looks at shark antibodies – how can that be relevant to cancer research?
I’ve been studying the immune system of sharks for over 15 years now. Our work, combined with that of other groups, has proved that sharks have a much more powerful immune system than was originally thought. We also showed that they use a new type of antibody, only found in sharks and their close cousins the skates and rays, to protect themselves from infection. We wondered if we could exploit the power of the shark immune system in general, and the special properties of this novel antibody in particular, to block specific targets present on the surface of certain human cancer cells in order to stop their growth and spread.
Sharks? Isn’t that a bit unusual?
Haha, yes, I guess it is a bit unusual. I actually started my doctorate intending to study a special type of antibody that had just been found in camels. I was collaborating with another group who immunised a couple of animals they had out in Brunei so that I could study their immune responses. However, when our collaborators went back to take the blood samples I needed for my project, they discovered that someone had stolen our camels! Luckily at just that point I read a paper by a research group in the US about the immune system of sharks and got really excited about that – I contacted them to see if I could study the immune responses of their sharks instead and the rest, as they say, is history!
How did you end up coming to Worldwide Cancer Research for funding?
Although I thought the idea of using shark antibodies to fight cancer was a good one, I also realised that as an early stage researcher from a background outside of cancer biology, my project would be considered ‘high-risk’ by most funders. Luckily I came across Worldwide Cancer Research; they are one of the few funders willing to support such early stage, potentially high-risk work, with the knowledge that risks need to be taken if we want to vastly improve how we diagnose and treat cancer.
You can watch Dr Dooley talk about her funding journey.
Your career has been unusual in that you worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a few years, and then made a rare move back into academic research. Why did you make the move?
While I really enjoyed my time in industry, and learnt a huge amount about the development of new drugs to treat human diseases, I really missed trying to understand how the shark immune system works. Moving back to academia has allowed me to continue doing the job I love, and gives me much more freedom to explore new ideas and take my work in interesting new directions.
Have you noticed any differences between commercial research and doing research in a university?
The main difference is that there is a lot less money available for research in an academic setting. Once we have an idea we have to write an application detailing our idea, what research we want to do, what we expect to gain from the work, how long the project will take and how much it will cost. We then submit our application to a prospective funder. The funders get a panel of specialists to look at all the submitted applications and whatever money they have is distributed to the very best. This means even if you have a brilliant idea, sometimes it doesn’t get funded simply because there isn’t enough money in the pot. The upside of academia is that we have much more freedom to explore new ideas and, importantly, follow unexpected findings as they pop up - in science many ground-breaking discoveries start with someone thinking ‘hey, that looks a bit weird…’.
What drives you as a scientist – what do you want to achieve?
I guess like most scientists I want to understand the world around me better; in my case I hope by studying shark immune responses it will shed light upon how the very complex immune system found in humans came about, as well as potentially providing molecules (such as their new antibodies) that can be developed into new drugs to treat human diseases. If my work significantly improves the life of a single person, either directly or by enabling some other scientist to do so in the future, then my hard work will have all been worthwhile.
And finally – where do you hope cancer research will be in 20 years' time? What do you think the treatment of cancer will be like for the next generation?
Having lost my own mum to cancer a few years ago I know first-hand how cruel a disease it can be. In 20 years' time I anticipate we will have much better tools for the diagnosis of cancer, this will allow treatment at a much earlier stage and vastly increase a patient’s chance of recovery. An increase in the number of treatments available will give the option of combining different therapies and tailoring the treatment to the individual patient, reducing side-effects and again increasing the chance of recovery. My biggest hope is that eventually cancer will be a relatively manageable disease and not the death sentence it is for many people today.
Dr Dooley is as passionate about sharks as she is about cancer research, and even took the opportunity to do a shark dive along with our Chief Executive, Norman Barrett, to raise awareness of her project.
The photograph was taken during the shark dive, which was covered by the BBC and other media outlets.