Michael is a clinical research fellow in his second year of doctoral training under the supervision of Professor Owen Sansom. His project focuses on understanding the response to radiotherapy treatment in rectal cancer. He is investigating the impact radiotherapy has on the tumour microenvironment, in particular the immune system.
What motivated you to do a PhD? 

As a colorectal surgeon in training, I was very excited by the opportunity to undertake a clinical research project at the CRUK Beatson Institute, with its world-leading reputation for preclinical modelling of colorectal cancer. Undertaking a PhD offers many advantages: to pursue an area of interest in depth, gain skills in research methodology, and develop a successful clinical academic career. Furthermore, I felt that the expertise and facilities available at the Beatson Institute would allow me to undertake cutting-edge research, advance scientific understanding in the field of colorectal cancer, and potentially contribute to the development of improved patient treatments.

What is your educational background?

I completed my undergraduate medical degree at the University of Edinburgh in 2012. I then completed the Foundation and Core Surgical Training programmes, before obtaining a National Training Number in General Surgery. Having completed ST4, I am now undertaking a period of time out of training for research and to complete a PhD in Cancer Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

How did you select your project?

One year prior to commencing my project, I approached Mr Campbell Roxburgh (Clinical Senior Lecturer and Consultant Colorectal Surgeon) about potential research opportunities in the field of colorectal cancer. I was very fortunate that he was developing a project proposal at that time, in collaboration with Professor Owen Sansom, to develop preclinical models of rectal cancer with the aim of studying the effects of radiotherapy and to develop novel immunotherapy/radiotherapy treatment combinations. After meeting with Professor Sansom and members of his lab, it was evident that the CRUK Beatson Institute is a dynamic research environment, and one which strives to leverage both scientific and clinical expertise. As well as being a very exciting project proposal, I was also confident that I would have strong support from scientists and clinicians alike.

Do tell us a little bit about your PhD project

My project involves the development of immunocompetent preclinical mouse models of rectal cancer, which recapitulate the anatomy and mutational burden of human disease. Neo-adjuvant radiotherapy or chemoradiotherapy forms part of standard of care treatment for patients with locally advanced rectal cancer, but responses are heterogeneous and poorly understood. I am using these models to study the effects of radiotherapy on the tumour immune microenvironment, to better understand the immunological and molecular mechanisms which underpin the responses seen in clinical practice. A Small Animal Radiation Research Platform (SARRP) allows the delivery of image-guided radiotherapy to murine rectal tumours. I hope that through better understanding of the immune response to radiotherapy in rectal cancer, we can identify treatment targets, and undertake preclinical testing of novel radiotherapy/immunotherapy treatment combinations.

Talk us through your typical day

One advantage of a PhD project within the CRUK Beatson Institute, is the diverse range of activities which fill your days and weeks. My typical mornings entail working in the animal unit, carrying out animal health checks and undertaking experimental procedures such as colonoscopy and delivering radiotherapy to tumour models (but not every day). Afternoons are typically spent undertaking data analysis, writing, experimental planning, and attending seminars and lab meetings. One advantage of being a clinical research fellow, is the flexibility to manage your own timetable and workload. There are also lab based activities from time to time, such as tissue culture, sample processing, microscopy and RNA extraction.

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

I have been very well supported in making the transition from the clinical environment to the laboratory, from both my clinical and scientific supervisory team. Professor Sansom and his experienced team of scientists have been very supportive in providing training for me to acquire the lab-based skills required to carry out a scientific research project. My clinical supervisors have closely supported me in developing the project aims and planning of experiments. The facilities in the Beatson Institute are world-leading, and have allowed me to pursue ambitious project aims. I have found the environment to be very stimulating, and people are always willing to collaborate, provide ideas and help progress my project.
Moving from the clinical to research environment is very challenging and requires persistence. Having no prior laboratory experience, I am still learning a lot of new skills and my experiments did not go as planned in my first year. I have had to be resilient and work with my supervisors to overcome these difficulties. Research labs are a different environment to the hospital, and science seemed very daunting initially. It was challenging adapting to a different way of working, and no longer being in a relatively senior position as a surgical registrar! In research I have had to learn to take responsibility for my projects and plan my work to utilise my time most effectively.

How much clinical work are you doing?

I have been very fortunate to receive funding through the CRUK Beatson Institute and University of Glasgow Graham Paterson Endowment Fund, so that I can focus my efforts entirely on my research project. Time out of programme is limited, and so I feel it is important to dedicate as much time as possible to my research project. I am integrated with the Academic Unit of Surgery at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, so participate in the out-patient colorectal clinic rota (this works out as 1 or 2 clinics per month).

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

Being a CRTF at the CRUK Beatson Institute is a fantastic opportunity to pursue a scientific and clinically relevant research project, and is well supported by world-leading scientists, clinicians and facilities. It is advantageous for potential candidates to identify their area of interest and approach potential supervisors as early as possible, and begin to develop project proposals, aims and working relationships. I would also advise that anyone interested speaks to current or past CRTFs to gain a better understanding of the benefits and challenges. Transitioning to laboratory based research will be a steep and challenging learning curve, and it is important to make the most of the support and expertise available.