We speak to Dr Lesley-Ann Martin, Group Leader at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research in London

What has been your career path so far?

I completed my PhD at the University of Reading and then took up a postdoctoral position with Prof Peter Mertens OBE at the Institute of Animal Health, Pirbright. This is where I gained my expertise in molecular virology. During that time, I read some publications about the use of gene therapy and the exciting prospect of using it to correct disease conditions. I went on to work with Prof Nick Lemoine developing suicide gene therapy to treat pancreatic and breast cancers. Suicide gene therapy works by specifically inserting a gene into cancer cells, which makes cancer cells kill themselves.

What is your role? 

I lead the Endocrinology team with Prof Mitch Dowsett addressing response and resistance to anti-hormone therapy in breast cancer.

Could you give us a brief description of your current project?

I lead a group of scientists identifying the molecular mechanisms that help cancer to become resistant to anti-hormone therapy.

Could you share some insight into the impact of this project?

Over the many years our studies have led to clinical trials that have improved patient care. 
Over 80% of breast cancer patients are hormone receptor positive. These patients are treated with anti-hormone therapies such as tamoxifen and aromatase inhibitors. While these therapies are very effective at treating cancer, up to 40% of patients relapse. This is why anti-hormone drug resistance is one of the biggest challenges for breast cancer research.  

What does your typical day involve?

I wake up at 6:30am, check the children have everything ready for school and take the train into London.  On the way I check my emails. Once I arrive, I have meetings to discuss research plans, write papers and read the scientific literature to stay up to date with the newest findings. I often get home late so it’s a mad rush to have dinner, check homework and prepare for the next day.

What has been your most memorable work moment?

I think this would be the publication of our Journal of Clinical Oncology paper. It was the first UK trial to show that suicide gene therapy was feasible for use in breast cancer patients... so many years ago now but it was my first experience of breast cancer research and bringing something hypothesised and developed in the lab to treat a patient in the clinic. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

As a scientist, I take research very seriously but sometimes experiments fail. The disappointment and feeling of inadequacy is immense. 

What’s the best part?

When somebody comes to see me with a perfect piece of data and you know it will make a difference to patients.

If you weren’t a researcher what would your dream job be? 

A ski instructor, but my knees are shot now!