As part of our the people behind the science series Dr Rebecca Marlow, Staff Scientist at the Breast Cancer Now Research Unit, King’s College London, explains her role in fighting against breast cancer.

Tuesday 13 March 2018      Research blog
Dr Rebecca Marlow, Staff Scientist at the Breast Cancer Now Research Unit London.

What has been your career path so far?

I did my undergraduate degree and PhD at the University of Manchester. My undergraduate Biochemistry degree had a year-out industrial placement at the then GlaxoWellcome site in Stevenage, which was my first introduction to bench science. I absolutely loved working full-time in the lab. There I was trying to grow cells in a 3D bioreactor that was hands-on and completely different to anything we had done at university. This experience led me to pursue a career in science, and I applied for the Wellcome Trust four-year PhD programme at the University of Manchester. 

I undertook my PhD research with Prof Streuli looking at how you can integrate the correct signals in a cell to get milk production during pregnancy. I pursued my first postdoc in Prof Lindsay Hinck’s laboratory at the University of California Santa Cruz. Living and working in the US was a great experience and taught me that you can do anything if you put your mind to it! Here we studied factors involved in milk-producing gland development. Loss of these factors could lead to unrestricted cell growth and potentially cancer development. These projects solidified my interest in development of breast cancer and using novel ways to treat the disease. 

For my second postdoc I decided to return to the UK and worked with Dr Gabi Dontu at King’s College London investigating breast cancer stem cells and their role in bone metastasis. I developed a 3D laboratory model representing the major cell types in the bone marrow and was able to show that cancer cells could establish themselves there and stay inactive for a long time. I also worked on creating new laboratory models of breast cancer and the role of breast cancer stem cells in cancer development. 

I wanted to continue working with these new disease models and the opportunity to work with Prof Andrew Tutt leading the team in the King’s College London Breast Cancer Now Research Unit was fabulous. 

What is your role?

I lead a small team of science technicians working with animal models of breast cancer. We use these models to recreate patient tumours and use them to test new treatments. I also lead another laboratory team working with “organoid” models which are 3D laboratory models of cancer tumours, designed to better represent the true structure of cancer tumours with different types of cells in it. As part of my liaison role I work between King’s College London and the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research, London. I work closely with all the teams at the Centre and I really enjoy the variety of projects that my team can help them with and improve using our laboratory models of the disease.  

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

My team works on designing and testing laboratory models of breast cancer. We then use these models to test new treatments for triple negative breast cancer. In the last year we have won funding to also generate 3D laboratory models of cancer tumours and hope to prove that use of these 3D models can replace some animal experiments.

Could you give us some insight into the impact of this project?

Our team hopes to change patient care by finding new targets for cancer drugs and demonstrating how new drugs could be used to treat breast cancer. 

What does your typical day involve?

I wake up around 7am and have breakfast at home in South London (I can’t function without breakfast). Then I either take the bus to the Guy’s campus of King’s College London or the tube to the Institute of Cancer Research at the King’s Road site. My week is usually split between these two great institutions. Typically I check my email and then plan for the day. There is always a to-do list on the go and depending on whether I have meetings or experiments scheduled I get started. I usually finish about 6-7pm and then meet friends for dinner or head home to chillax.

What has been your most memorable work moment?

Getting my first paper published – to see the science that I had worked so hard to produce in print was magical.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Picking yourself up again after a rejection – be it an unsuccessful grant application or a publication manuscript that has not been sent out for review, or it has, but you don’t agree with reviewers’ comments. It’s important to be able to put these things into perspective and be able to pick yourself up again and start afresh. Sometimes doing something completely different away from work, like going to the gym or for a walk, helps with perspective and can give you the flashes of inspiration needed to reframe your work.

What’s the best part?

The diversity and creativity that research needs. It’s great to work with so many talented scientists and help devise experiments and undertake new projects.

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

A baker. I love baking and have made wedding cakes for friends and my brothers. I think I like baking as the precise protocol or recipe!. To be followed is so similar to doing research science. Though I also like experimenting with new flavours and techniques.