The Driver Prize is awarded each year to a Breast Cancer Now researcher who has shown outstanding commitment to their field of research and made vital contributions to Breast Cancer Now’s vision that by 2050, everyone diagnosed with breast cancer will live and live well. This year, the prize is awarded to Dr Arran Turnbull, post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
Arran has been working with Professor Mike Dixon for over ten years. Over this time, he has shown great drive and determination to improve the lives of women living with breast cancer. His focus has been on breast cancers which are powered by the hormone oestrogen. Dr Arran Turnbull’s achievements include a test he has developed which, in the future, could help predict which patients may develop resistance to anti-hormone therapy. This test would ensure every patient is on the most appropriate treatment for them.
Aside from research, Arran supports Breast Cancer Now by talking about his research to our supporters and leading tours around the laboratory in Edinburgh. This isn’t where Arran’s accomplishments end, and we spoke to him to find out more.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in breast cancer research?
“I did Molecular Biology for my undergraduate degree because I was interested in it but at that stage, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do. Once I had finished my degree, I decided to work in finance. I didn’t really enjoy the work and that’s what motivated me to get back into science and to do a PhD,” explains Arran.
“On the first day of my PhD I met Professor Mike Dixon and his enthusiasm really made me want to work with him to develop our understanding of breast cancer.”
They have worked together, along with Dr Andrew Sims, for ten years now trying to understand why some women with oestrogen receptor-positive breast cancer will see their cancer come back and what we can do to stop it from happening.
“At the end of my PhD I worked with Mike, who’s also a medical doctor, in clinics with his patients. Seeing him and the relationship he had with his patients made me realise that this is what I wanted to do too – I wanted a balance of doing research but also helping patients as a medical doctor, bridging the gap between medicine and research.”
Arran started his medical degree in 2015 and now has one year left.
“I work in research on Wednesday afternoons, in the evenings and on the weekends but the rest of the time I’m studying medicine. I want to go into medical oncology and I’ve got lots of colleagues who do similar things and are an amazing support.”
“Now that I’m near the end I’m so glad I did do it and I’m so grateful to Mike for not only having been my boss, but also my mentor for the last ten years.”
Unsurprisingly, Arran doesn’t get much time to himself but he does find the time to play the piano!
How would you describe what you do to a non-scientist?
“The vast majority of breast cancers rely on the hormone oestrogen for their growth. Endocrine therapy is a treatment targeted towards that process so most breast cancer patients, whose cancers rely on oestrogen, receive this treatment. However, about 20-40% of cancers stop responding to this therapy. Our research is trying to identify patients at high risk of this happening and working out how we should treat them to prevent their cancer from recurring.”
What does being a Breast Cancer Now researcher mean to you?
“It means a lot. I feel like I’ve been with the charity for a long time. At the time of applying for my PhD, I didn’t know much about breast cancer, but I thought it was a really interesting topic. One of Breast Cancer Now’s legacy charities, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, supported me through my PhD. It’s been great to continue to work with Breast Cancer Now who have supported me for the last ten years. I am very excited to see things that we’ve been working on over this time progress towards clinical use, which has the potential to benefit patients.”
What would you say your biggest achievement has been so far?
“Getting my PhD was a huge thing. I think also getting into medicine was a great achievement. For a long time, I was unsure and was questioning whether I should be doing another degree at this stage of my life. I then met an anaesthetist who had left law at the age of 40 to study medicine and she said it was the best thing that she ever did. That’s when I thought: if you’ve done it, I can do it too.”
“From a science point of view, during my PhD I developed a test which has the potential to predict whose cancer might develop resistance to anti-hormone therapy. This has been a big achievement and it has the potential to benefit many women. It would be amazing to see it get into clinic.”
What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?
“Surprisingly, not time management! My job involves finding grant money and looking after the people I employ. We’re a very close team and they are highly committed individuals who make everything happen. I want to make sure they’re okay and that they’re supported in their work.”
What are your hopes for the future of breast cancer research?
“My biggest hope is to prevent women developing secondary breast cancer and work out how best to treat them. I think the biggest problem we currently have is that when someone presents with secondary breast cancer, we don’t know what drugs or treatment would be best to give.
“I think that’s where research is heading now. We’re starting to piece together which drugs should be given to which patients and that move towards personalised medicine is starting to be realised. I think continuing to develop this would drastically improve breast cancer treatment.”
Is there anything you’d like to say to Breast Cancer Now supporters?
"A huge thank you for supporting a great charity. You help Breast Cancer Now to support incredible work throughout the whole of the UK. I’ve been very lucky to have their support for ten years now which is phenomenal. We are making real progress, we are seeing things develop and this fills us, as researchers, with hope. Without your support, we couldn’t do any of this."
Thank you, Arran, for coming to the Breast Cancer Now office and inspiring us all with the stories of your work. We are proud to name you this year’s Antony Driver Prize Winner and we wish you the best of luck with all your future endeavours, particularly as you enter the last year of your medical degree!
About The Driver Prize
The Driver Prize is presented in memory of Sir Antony Driver, who was a trustee at one of our legacy charities, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, from 1996 to 2000. This prize is kindly supported by the Driver family.
Dr Arran Turnbull is just one of many fantastic researchers working with Breast Cancer Now, and we are immensely proud of what the whole team has achieved.