Chosen by our current trustees, the recipient of The Driver Prize is considered an outstanding researcher at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre, whose work has made significant contributions to Breast Cancer Now’s ambition and charitable vision.
Dr Nichola Johnson was nominated by Dr Olivia Fletcher, a team leader at the Research Centre, for her work investigating how changes in levels of hormones are linked with breast cancer risk and response to treatment.
She’s published her scientific findings in several high impact journals and actively supports Breast Cancer Now through volunteer and charitable fundraising activities, making her a worthy winner of the prize. We chatted with Nichola to find out more about her journey in becoming a researcher.
What made you want to become a scientist?
I wanted to become a scientist because I enjoy it. At school, science was my favourite class and I’d always been interested in how things worked. I enjoyed both Biology and Chemistry and couldn’t decide which to study at University, so I opted for Biochemistry! It was the right choice for me - I was fascinated by the incredible things that go on inside a cell and about genetics and how a relatively simple molecule like DNA can carry the instructions for life. As an undergraduate student I had the opportunity to experience time as a scientist in the lab and was convinced that that was the career for me.
What has your research career looked like to date?
It has been a pretty standard career path in some ways, I completed my degree in Biochemistry, followed by a DPhil in Molecular Genetics, studying NAT1, a protein which breaks down drugs such as folic acid and influences exposure to chemicals such as those present in cigarette smoke. I was interested in variation in the DNA sequence for NAT1 and its impact on disease, particularly bladder cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. I then moved to London, to a postdoctoral scientist position in the Breast Cancer Now Research Centre. However, quite unusually for a scientist I have worked in the same group for 17 years! I joined a brilliant team and work with some really wonderful and inspiring people. In the early days we spent many years collecting samples from volunteers with and without breast cancer - which have proved to be an amazing resource. Each project I’ve worked on has opened up exciting new areas to investigate, so I haven’t ever wanted to leave!
What attracted you to your current research project?
I was initially attracted to working in the Functional Genetic Epidemiology lab, because I was able to continue pursuing my interest in how natural variation present in the DNA sequence between different individuals, called genetic variation, can affect risk of disease, but I could switch direction, and begin studying breast cancer. My current research project has evolved from a project I worked on when I started back in 2001. We initially wanted to identify genetic variation that affects risk of breast cancer, and decided to specifically target the DNA that codes for proteins that synthesize and breakdown hormones, because of the recognized risk associated with lifetime exposure to hormones. Using the large sample collections we had accrued we were able to identify a variant that is associated with a much lower level of hormone in urine and that this variant also reduces the risk of breast cancer.
What is the most difficult thing about your job?
Accepting that scientific advances can at times move pretty slowly, especially in my line of research, can be difficult, especially when friends ask “have you found the cure for cancer yet”! But having worked in the same research group for most of my scientific career means I have been able to follow up each small discovery and realise that although small, each can influence our understanding of breast cancer and has the potential to improve the future prospects of those affected by breast cancer.
What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
I feel pretty lucky to have joined a brilliant team and being able to come to work each day and spend my time doing something I enjoy is wonderful. It is varied and challenging and interesting all of the time and ultimately I hope the results may benefit those who will develop breast cancer in the future. Working with other committed scientists in the Breast Cancer Now Research Centre and having the opportunity to regularly meet fundraisers and people affected by breast cancer really encourages and motivates you to continue the work.
What are you working on now? / Please tell us about your research project
We are continuing to investigate how the genetic variant we identified can affect levels of hormone in the urine and influence breast cancer risk. By using blood and urine samples collected from women in the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study we are able to extend our analysis and compare hormone levels with many more variants across the whole genome. This will help us identify additional genetic variants that may also affect risk of breast cancer. The variant we have identified lies near the gene coding for a protein that breaks down a variety of substances including chemotherapy drugs used to treat breast cancer. Women with breast cancer who have this genetic variant in their DNA seem to do worse when treated by chemotherapy compared to women who don’t have this genetic variant. We’d like to understand why this is and whether this observation is limited to treatment with specific chemotherapeutic drugs. This may lead to better treatment strategies for the approximately 8% of women who carry this genetic variant.
How will your research help women with breast cancer?
Our research aims to identify the genetic variants that influence an individual’s risk of breast cancer and that could one day be used to help identify women most at risk of developing breast cancer. This may aid in the improvement of the early detection of breast cancer and in implementing prevention strategies, in order to try and prevent those women from developing it. Understanding how genetic variation influences an individual’s risk of breast cancer will further our knowledge about the biology of breast cancer. Our recent work, identifying a variant that confers a worse outcome for some cancer patients receiving a particular chemotherapeutic regimen, may in the long term contribute towards a more “personalised” treatment schedule based on their genetics.
What does winning the Driver Prize mean to you?
I was delighted to learn that I had been chosen to receive the Driver Prize this year and very proud to join the list of worthy winners from previous years. I am very grateful to the Trustees for selecting my work to be recognised by the award this year, and also to the Driver family for their continued support for the scientists and the science that takes place at the Research Centre. It’s fabulous that the work of the Functional Genetic Epidemiology team has been acknowledged in this way.
Dr Nichola Johnson’s work is made possible through funding from Marks and Spencer.
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.