Professor Robert (Bob) Brown is Chair in Translational Oncology in the Department of Surgery and Cancer within the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College. His research focuses on epigenetics and drug resistance – why chemotherapy sometimes stops working for patients with ovarian cancer.
How did you get this job? What were you doing before?
I joined the Department of Surgery & Cancer in 2007 after being strongly encouraged to apply for the post by the senior leadership team in Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London. Importantly, I saw it as an opportunity to develop my research interests in drug resistance and to tackle new challenges, in both education and research.
Previously I had worked at the CRUK Beatson Laboratories in Glasgow University. Although I regretted leaving Scotland, I saw it as an exciting opportunity to work with the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre and internationally leading cancer researchers in the Division of Cancer at Imperial College and Institute of Cancer Research.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
Since the age of about 12, I wanted to be a biologist. I am fascinated by genetics and epigenetics. After my PhD on mutational effects of ionising radiation on cells, I trained at Heidelberg in Germany to learn molecular biology methods, as it was clear this was a key skill essential for cancer research. Today the key skill I encourage is bioinformatics – how to visualise and interrogate complex data.
After my training, I returned to my roots in Glasgow and started to apply my training to address clinically relevant research questions, in particular trying to find out why chemotherapy sometimes stops working and patients’ tumours develop drug resistance.
This led me to try to understand the detailed mechanisms of how tumours switch genes on and off. And this in turn prompted me to explore whether we can use epigenetic drugs to switch genes on and stop tumours growing, or make them more sensitive to chemotherapy. Now I am not only interested in whether we can treat tumours with these drugs once they become resistant, but whether we can use epigenetic drugs to prevent tumours becoming resistant and hence improve patient survival.
What made you want to research ovarian cancer?
I want to understand the biology of ovarian cancer and how it evolves. Not only when the woman is first diagnosed, but also how the tumour characteristics change following chemotherapy and the implications of this for new approaches to treatment.
Over the last few years we have begun to understand more about how and from what cell ovarian cancer develops. It is a disease where most patients respond to conventional, carboplatin-based chemotherapy and an increasing number of molecularly-targeted agents are becoming available. However, despite these exciting research advances, survival for women with ovarian cancer has not improved much over the last several decades.
We need better treatments for women when they fail current options; we need to identify who will benefit from personalised treatments, and we need to explore innovative approaches to clinical trials. The challenge is using our understanding of the biology of ovarian cancer to get the right drugs to the right patients quicker.
What is your most memorable work moment?
About twenty years ago a PhD student I was supervising came to me with a “wrong” result. In fact, there was nothing wrong with the result, it was just not what we were expecting.
Unexpected results are exciting as they can take you down new avenues of research. It suggested that platinum chemotherapy was causing or selecting for loss of a particular DNA repair pathway. This was counter-intuitive and I have spent the last twenty years trying to understand it. Which I think we now (mostly) do, although it inevitably has led to an entirely new set of questions.
The student got his PhD and is now a Medical Oncology consultant.
What is the best part of your job?
Supervising students and mentoring early career investigators. I enjoy watching them develop their independent research approach and seeing them develop a successful career. So far I have supervised 33 students to successful completion of their PhD or MD.
Who inspires you?
My daughters, Katie and Georgia and son-in-law, Al. One daughter is a nurse working on a gynaecological ward and the other is training to be a genomic counsellor. Al is a computer science teacher. They are all enthusiastic about what they do and using their education in a way that benefits society. Otherwise, two Medical Oncologists I have worked with who use their knowledge and training in an innovative, patient-centric manner. Both have great insight and knowledge, although probably their greatest strength is knowing what they don’t know. I won’t embarrass them by naming them.
What’s your vision for the future of ovarian cancer treatment?
Having the right treatment for the right patients quicker. This will be based on using functional imaging or molecular analysis of patient-derived tissue samples to allow better diagnosis and increased precision of treatment.