Researchers of the future

05 July 2019

The first of up to 15 non-clinical translational PhD studentships supported by our NIHR BRC are now underway

Reda Stankunaite

A priority for the BRC is improving our research capacity by developing and supporting the inter-disciplinary teams working across The Royal Marsden and the ICR. To address this, we have set up a programme to award up to 15 non-clinical translational PhD studentships over five years. These studentships will enhance our capacity in areas such as immuno-oncology, molecular diagnostics, imaging and physics, artificial intelligence and cancer genetics.

Each PhD project will focus on improving patient outcomes and experience, and will be supervised by a clinician and a research scientist. The first three candidates – Nithya Paranthaman, Reda Stankunaite (pictured above) and Alice Newey – started in October last year. Their theses are expected to be submitted in September 2022.

Nithya’s studentship focuses on improving the way multiple myeloma patients are monitored. Supervised by Professor Mitch Dowsett and Dr Martin Kaiser of The Royal Marsden and the ICR, she will investigate whether dried blood spots can be used to measure the levels of key indicating factors such as heavy/light chains, calcium and C-reactive protein. These blood spots can be supplied remotely, meaning that multiple myeloma patients can avoid frequent trips to the clinic to give samples.

Working with Dr Michael Hubank of the ICR and The Royal Marsden, and Professor Andrea Sottoriva and Professor Louis Chesler of the ICR, Reda is developing a blood test to identify genetic mutations present in paediatric brain cancers and other solid tumours in children. This ‘liquid biopsy’ would detect tumour DNA circulating in the bloodstream and detect mutations that indicate drug resistance at an early stage. There are limited chances to monitor genetic changes and adapt treatment in young patients, because invasive tumour biopsies can be dangerous for them. Reda’s project aims to provide clinicians with a safer, easier method to better understand an individual patient’s tumour and their treatment needs.

Under the supervision of the ICR’s Dr Marco Gerlinger, Alice is using patient-derived spheroids – multicellular tumour like structures – to look at how cancer cells can evade the immune system and evolve to resist treatment with immunotherapies. She will also study the molecular ‘flags’ on cancer cells, to predict patients’ response to treatments and look at ways to make tumours more susceptible to immune attacks.