Back to the lab, cycling training and old vans

07 August 2018
Flora van

Professor Bob Brown's research focuses on epigenetics and drug resistance – why chemotherapy sometimes stops working for patients with ovarian cancer. Later this year his partner, Justine, will cycle 240 miles from London to Paris over 3 days for Women V Cancer, raising money for three women's cancer charities, including Ovarian Cancer Action. Bob provides an update on the highs and lows of training and his vital ovarian cancer research that Women V Cancer helps to fund.

"At the ripe age of 62, I’ve decided to go back and be a laboratory research scientist. For the last few years, I’ve been Head of the Division of Cancer at Imperial College London, interim Director of the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre and a member of more committees than I care to remember. Professor Iain McNeish has recently stepped into these roles and I’m going back, (with some trepidation), to what I was originally trained to do: trying to understand the biology of cancer-based on experimental evidence. More about the geeky stuff later, but first cycling and old vans.

My partner, Justine, together with her friend Chris, have been training to cycle 240 miles from London to Paris over 3 days for Women V Cancer. This is a series of women-only cycling challenges in aid of three British charities – Breast Cancer Care, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust and Ovarian Cancer Action – raising vital funds to fight breast, cervical and ovarian cancers. Ovarian Cancer Action help fund the research I do in the lab.  I’m not sure that funding my research was entirely Justine’s motivation: I suspect she just enjoys ridiculous challenges, charity fundraising and cycling. 

They have been training for the last six months and this weekend cycled two 50-mile routes on consecutive days in the North Downs. They have been doing great, especially given how little long distance cycling they have done before. I have been back up in case of punctures and breakdowns, in a 1975 bright yellow VW T2 camper van known as Flora, little Miss Sunshine and/or The Custard. Sadly, it was the van that needed rescuing by the AA in Newlands Corner car park, while Justine finished her cycle. She is working beautifully now, as is the van. 

Now the geeky stuff. What is it I will be doing in the lab next week? Tumour suppressor genes are genes that put the brakes on cancer growth and act as guardians of the cell. They are the good guys. However, sometimes they go bad by the gene becoming mutated leading to the protein encoded by the gene becoming altered and no longer able to stop the tumour from growing. There is a clinical trial in ovarian cancer patients of a new drug that may be able to switch this altered protein back into becoming a good guy again and hence stopping the tumour grow. 

It works well in experimental models, but the trial is looking at whether it works in patients. The ultimate test of whether a drug works is whether patients survive longer, but such trials take a long time. As we test new drugs and the best way to deliver them, we need biological ways of telling us whether the drug is working as expected (or not), as soon as possible. Then we can quickly make decisions whether to continue the trial or think about why the drug is not working.  We can begin to examine this by measuring a protein in blood that tells us whether the tumour cells are dying when patients are treated with the drug. So what I will be doing is measuring that protein in blood from patients that could tell us whether the drug is causing the ovarian tumour cells to die. 

For those of you who have read this far, next week I’ll tell you how I get on in the lab, how the training is going and where the van breaks down next."

Fancy taking on a cycling challenge in stunning Italy while raising money for three fantastic women's cancer charities? Join us for Women V Cancer: Milan to Venice 2019.