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Exploring the universe within cells: the 2016 Sir Antony Driver prize winner

The Driver Prize is presented in memory of Sir Antony Driver, who was a trustee at Breakthrough Breast Cancer from 1996 to 2000. Chosen by our trustees, the prize winner is an up-and-coming researcher at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre.

Isaac was nominated by Dr Nick Turner, himself a former Driver Prize winner, for his work on developing blood tests that can be used to predict whether a breast cancer patient might relapse after they have received their treatment. This is done by finding and analysing cancer DNA that is circulating in the blood, what is known as a ‘liquid biopsy’.

It was Isaac’s cleverness of approach and the usefulness of translating research from the laboratory to clinical practice that led the judges to choose Isaac as the winner. We spoke to Isaac to learn more about his prize-winning career to-date...

What made you want to become a scientist?

I have always been fascinated by science. When I was a kid I loved astronomy and I just wanted to be an astronaut, like most children. It was only when I started to learn biology in school, and subsequently in high school, that I became fascinated with molecular biology.

I became more and more attracted to the universe within cells, particularly to genetics, and how DNA carries the template of who we are.

What has your research career looked like to date?

After a long break following high school to experiment with what the world had to offer I finally went back to my love for science and I did a degree in genetics, followed by a PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship, very much the prevailing career path for any scientist.

The main theme to all my research had been understanding the molecular ‘signals’ sent within cells, from a mostly academic perspective, and I had worked not only on model organisms, like flies and yeasts but also with human-derived cells grown in the lab. It was only when I joined the Breast Cancer Now Research Centre that my research became more patient-orientated and began to take a translational focus.

What attracted you to your current research project?

By the time I started to work on my current project I was well established in the Molecular Oncology lab under Nick Turner’s supervision as a Higher Scientific Officer working on various different projects.

I started to work with circulating tumour DNA in liquid biopsies to complete work started by a Clinical Fellow that had recently left the lab. I was lucky, or talented, enough to take the project to a successful completion. Everything else spun off from these original results as we became more and more interested with what we could do in this research area and pushed the technology we had at our disposal.

What are you working on now?

I’m continuing to focus on circulating tumour DNA in liquid biopsies, mostly in blood samples, but I am also interested in other body fluids like urine or saliva and if they can be used as sources of genetic material from tumours.

My main work is on breast cancer and specifically on using circulating tumour DNA in the early setting to try to predict which women are at risk of relapse following treatment for their primary cancers.

I also work very closely with other researchers at the institute and advise and train them on how to use liquid biopsies in other types of cancers. I am currently involved in projects in lung, head and neck, colorectal, and upper oesophageal cancers, and very recently I’ve become involved in work on thyroid tumours. The techniques we use across this wide spectrum of tumours are very similar and rely on Next Generation Sequencing and digital technologies, like droplet digital PCR.

How will your research help women with breast cancer?

I hope that my main body of work on breast cancer can help us to identify those women that are at risk of relapse following treatment and that by doing so we can offer them treatment earlier to give them a better chance of not developing secondary or metastatic cancers. I also hope that this research will allow us to identify better treatments for women.

What does winning the Driver Prize mean to you?

It has been an honour to win the Driver Prize and join the previous awardees and I am very grateful not only to the people in the Molecular Oncology Lab, and beyond, who have helped me in my research but also to the committee for choosing my research as worthy of winning this prize.

More information

Read more about liquid biopsies in our blog and find out what they are and why they are important



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