Dr Chris Lord has recently been made leader of the Gene Function team at the Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research. Dr Matthew Lam caught up with Chris to find out more about his achievements and what has inspired him to pursue a research career with Breakthrough.
Congratulations on your recent tenure as team leader of the Gene Function team. You have a history with this team having worked for many years under the leadership of Professor Alan Ashworth. What was it like learning from Alan?
It has always been exciting and, at times, very funny, working with Alan. Anybody who has ever met him knows that he exudes enthusiasm about how research can really make a difference to people with breast cancer and it is hard not to be infected with that enthusiasm.
What is the focus of your research?
Broadly speaking, our work focuses upon identifying weaknesses in breast cancer cells that are absent in normal cells and then using this information to design better ways to treat the disease.
You are one of the longest serving scientists in the Breakthrough Research Centre – what makes it such an attractive place to do research?
I would simply say that there are few places in the world where the work going on has the potential to reach through to what happens in the clinic. The Breakthrough Research Centre is one of those places. The Centre is situated within the Institute of Cancer Research, which is right next door to the Royal Marsden hospital, one of the UK’s leading breast clinics. The combination of oncologists and scientists working across the Centre and the Marsden allows us to translate findings from the lab into the clinic as quickly as possible.
You were part of the research team which helped to identify PARP inhibitors as a potential treatment for breast cancer. What exactly are PARP inhibitors and how do they work?
PARP inhibitors are small chemical compounds that block the activity of a protein known as PARP1. Most cells can survive perfectly well when treated with PARP inhibitors but, as we found back in 2005, breast tumour cells with BRCA gene defects are very sensitive to these drugs. PARP inhibitors appear to damage the DNA inside a cell in a way that normal cells can deal with it but BRCA mutant cells cannot. The result is that BRCA mutant cells die but normal cells are left alive. Treating cancer by exploiting weaknesses such as a faulty BRCA gene is what we call “synthetic lethality”.
Being involved in this work was, and continues to be, a very exciting part of my job. I also think it’s a piece of work that Breakthrough supporters can be incredibly proud of as they funded many of the scientists, including myself, who carried out the critical pieces of work.
What is the future for these drugs?
I’m sure that in the next few years we will see a PARP inhibitor being approved for use in the clinic. The final round of clinical trials using PARP inhibitors still need to take place and these are being set up by Breakthrough Research Centre oncologists such as Andy Tutt and Nick Turner.
What other targets of “synthetic lethality” are emerging?
One of the tasks we set ourselves to achieve over the coming years is to use what we have learnt from working on PARP inhibitors and BRCA mutant tumours to see if we could devise new approaches for targeting breast tumours with other gene defects. We’ve started to see if we can find these “synthetic lethal” effects in breast tumours with defects in genes such as E-cadherin and RB. Hopefully this work will bear fruit over the next few years.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself
I taught myself to play the drums at the grand old age of 38. My wife and daughter wish I’d given up by the time I was 39…
Give us your best science fact.
One of the main approaches we use in the lab for identifying novel ways to treat cancer, a technique known as RNA interference, was developed by people who were trying to understand the genetic basis of flower petal colour.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The thing I like about research is that you can be the first person in the world to discover something new. That thrill of “discovery” still excites me as much now as it did when I started doing research. We also have a chance to do something truly useful, and in fact I think we have a responsibility as scientists to make sure we do as much damage to diseases such as breast cancer as we can. All of these things, plus a lot of coffee, get me up early and into the lab!
Dr Matthew Lam is Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s Senior Research Officer