Dr Natasha Malik is a Breast Cancer Now researcher at the University of Glasgow. When labs across the country had to close due to COVID-19, Natasha was unable to carry out her research from home and so volunteered to join a coronavirus testing lab. We caught up with Natasha to find out more.

Dr Natasha Malik

How has your research been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I’m working with Dr Iain MacPherson to better understand secondary breast cancer. I’m studying a specific protein that plays a role in the spread of breast cancer to find ways to stop it and help people affected by the disease.

COVID-19 has affected every aspect of my research. My lab-based experiments are on hold following government guidelines on lockdown. I was first working from home as much as possible and reading scientific literature. But due to the nature of my project, there’s only so much I can do from home. So I volunteered to work in the Lighthouse laboratory where I now do testing for COVID-19. My position is covered by the University of Glasgow and I’ll work there until labs reopen and I can go back to my research.

What has inspired you to work in a COVID-19 testing laboratory?

Most people are doing their bit by staying at home to stop the spread of COVID-19. I wanted to contribute my skills and knowledge by becoming a part of the emergency testing centre. I have close friends and family who are also key workers and it gives me even more reason to work here and to help them and the community to overcome this crisis.

What do you do at the testing centre?

The testing centre receives swabs from people all over the UK with suspected COVID-19. To quickly process the samples, we’ve set up various stations in the lab. In each of them, a key task is performed. These include unboxing the swabs, extracting biological material from them, processing it, analysing the results and reporting them.

I manage the scanning and racking of the samples that come in every day. They start coming quite early in the morning, so I start as early as possible to make sure we deal with all the samples that we get. Every day is different, though. Sometimes we run into unexpected issues, but I work with such a good team that we’ve never had any problems processing the samples.

What expertise from your research have you brought to the COVID-19 testing centre?

I have performed similar tests throughout my research career. Having this prior knowledge was key in helping set up the testing lab and troubleshoot our processes.

The major challenge was setting up the lab from scratch. What really helped me is my previous experience in a lab. When we started, there was nothing there, no equipment. There was a lot meticulous planning, we had to think about all the lab materials we would need day to day, what could go wrong and how we could overcome these problems. It required a lot of organisation, the skills for which I got throughout my PhD.

What could we learn from the COVID-19 crisis and bring to breast cancer research?

The one thing that I have learnt at the testing centre is that anything is possible if we put our efforts together. The testing centre was set up in ten days’ time and within three weeks it started taking samples from all over the country, not just Scotland. It’s a tremendous achievement and we now hope there are some innovations and ways of working that could be translated to accelerate breast cancer research too.

I think it’s extremely important for research in breast cancer to continue so that we can bring new advances in this field and save lives. And I can’t wait to resume my work. I want to resume my work in breast cancer research so that I can play my part.

What will you do when you can go back to your experiments?

I will start where I’ve left off. I need to restart all my experiments that were ongoing, so it’s just the case of seeing how quickly I can get back to doing what I was doing before.

Before the lockdown, I was very excited about a next experiment I was going to do. I was getting ready to test the effect of a protein called GRM3 on breast cancer spread in a mouse model of the disease. It would give us lots of insight for the next steps in my research. But unfortunately I couldn’t complete it because of the lockdown.

Do you have a message for Breast Cancer Now supporters?

I’d like to thank all Breast Cancer Now supporters for everything they have done and continue to do. And I want to reassure them that their support is fully appreciated. It’s through their support researchers like me can continue our work and can help people with breast cancer. Thank you.

We need your support, now more than ever, so that our researchers can make up for lost time.

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