Mark is a clinical research fellow in his second year of doctoral training in the labs of Prof Richard Wilson (GLA) and Prof Owen Sansom (GLA). His project aims to improve the outcomes in a subtype of advanced colorectal cancer. Using a suite of preclinical models, he studies the molecular response to novel and combination therapies.
What motivated you to do a PhD?

Whilst there have been advances in care and treatments for people with cancer, there remains a need to improve these further. I think clinical academics have a role to push these advances by trying to bridge pre-clinical work with trial development. I wanted to pursue a PhD to gain a better understanding of pre-clinical models and develop skills related to these so that I can work towards pursuing a clinical academic career.

What is your educational background?

My education and training to date has been in Glasgow and I’ve continued that trend into my PhD. I did my undergraduate medical degree at the University of Glasgow. I was interested in malignancy and its mechanisms early on and so did an intercalated degree focusing on cancer science. I think this was my favourite year of medical school. My project for that year was quite clinically orientated which allowed me to see the potential that research has to shape clinical practice. This positive experience is one of the reasons I want to pursue a career that has a mix of clinical and research opportunities.
When I finished my undergraduate training, I did my foundation years rotating around Glasgow hospitals. I chose a rotation that included a job at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre. I enjoyed looking after the patients with cancer there and that confirmed to me that I wanted to pursue oncology as a specialty. I then did my core medical training in Glasgow and Lanarkshire and got a training number in medical oncology based at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre. I came out of programme in ST4.

How did you select your project? 

I had the advantage of working in the hospital associated with the institute and a few of the consultants there told me about their projects. I spoke to a couple of potential supervisors about projects and what would be involved. I really liked the projects that I could imagine a future clinical utility or link to current practice. All the projects offered at the institute aim to improve cancer understanding but coming from a clinical background I wanted a project that focussed a bit more on therapeutics. The project aims were the deciding factor for me.  

Do tell us a little bit about your PhD project  

I am looking at preclinical models of a specific subtype of bowel cancer. Around 10% of metastatic colorectal cancer will have a specific mutation in the BRAF gene which confers with it a poor prognosis. It represents a distinct clinical group of patients where treatments have been traditionally poor. There have been recent advances in targeted therapy for this type of bowel cancer and whilst there have been gains, there remains a need for better treatments. My project aims to characterise a suite of murine models of BRAF mutant colorectal cancer and utilise these as a preclinical platform for testing novel therapeutics. These includes genetically engineered mouse models, othrotopic transplant models and murine derived organoids with the therapies being novel combination of existing drugs as well as new drugs.

Talk us through your typical day  

Each day is a mix of things but COVID has impacted how all our days look. The main part of my projects involves mice. The mice need health checks and dissected when they have come to their endpoint. Prior to COVID, I would have spent the mornings in the animal unit doing this for my mice but now we do whole group cohort checks where small groups in the lab check all our groups’ mice. It probably works out the same number of hours in the animal unit as before but just condensed into one day.
Tissue culture is another important aspect of my day. This involves culturing mouse tumours as 3D tumour organoids. So the mouse makes the tumour and I take a bit and grow it in culture. With these organoids you can transplant back into mice as well as do in vitro experiments.
In between these there are other things to do such as looking at histology, extracting RNA or doing IHC. There is also a bit of mouse administration and colony management. There are also meetings scattered throughout the week in the form of internal and external seminars, external collaborator meetings, lab meetings, and progress meetings. It is quite nice that there are a variety of activities you can do, and your week quickly fills up.

What has it been like so far? What have you found challenging?  

It has been good so far. I can see the future direction of my work. My lab group is great with really experienced researchers. It is also one of the biggest mouse groups in the UK. It is an exciting atmosphere and bring lots of opportunities. The biggest challenge I found was going from a position of being quite knowledgeable and useful in a clinical setting to having to learn a brand new set of skills and being pretty useless in a lab setting. I had never done any work like I’m doing now. However, you learn how to do things pretty quick when you ask questions and there are supportive people willing to teach. It is a bit of a learning curve and I think if you speak to most people they will say it takes about 6 months just to find your feet.

How much clinical work are you doing?  

Again COVID changed how much clinical commitments I am currently doing. Prior to COVID, I did one clinic a week. Then in April I returned to support NHS service for four months and restarted my studies in October. Since coming back I haven’t done clinic but will pick this back up in the New Year. I have also continued to be on the out of hours on call oncology SPR rota throughout. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in a CRTF? 

The Beatson Institute is an amazing place to work. There is proper world leading science being done and so is an exciting place to do a PhD. I’d recommend looking at supervisors and projects here as you are very well supported. Like I mentioned, for me it was all about the project so speak to potential supervisors about projects as they are all happy to chat. If you are not sure if you want to do a period of research, speak to clinicians who have done it about their experiences. Overall, I would recommend pursuing a CRTF at the Beatson Institute.