Dr Matthew Lam caught up with scientist Dr Arran Turnbull to discuss his research and motivations.
Dr Arran Turnbull is a post-doctoral researcher at the Breakthrough Edinburgh Research Programme at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre. Arran has worked there since January 2013, where his research aims to better understand how to detect and predict the development of treatment resistance in ER-positive breast cancer.
What is the focus of your research?
Our main research interests are focused on predicting and understanding resistance to endocrine therapy. Around 70% of all breast cancers are dependent on the hormone estrogen for growth and most patients with this type of cancer (ER-positive) will receive endocrine therapies such as tamoxifen or letrozole. Despite the prevalent use of these drugs, the response rate, or those that receive any benefit, is only around 50-70% and currently there is no way of predicting who will benefit and who will develop resistance.
When you talk to non-science friends, how do you explain what you do?
It’s sometimes very difficult to explain what we do. A lot of what we do in our team involves generating vast quantities of data by measuring the expression of all the genes in the genome in hundreds of different breast cancers and comparing them. We also do all of our own analysis, using computer power and mathematical modelling to make sense of the complex array of data we generate from our lab experiments. Trying to explain exactly how we do that is a challenge and so normally I leave it at; that we do breast cancer research and that we are interested in determining why and how some patients become resistant to treatment.
You recently enjoyed some success in LiveStrong’s ‘Big C’ Competition. Can you tell us a bit more about this competition?
The Big C competition was setup by the charity LiveStrong to encourage innovators to create and pitch solutions designed to improve the daily lives of cancer sufferers. Our recent work has involved the development of a diagnostic test, known as Edinburgh EndoResponse 4 (EER4), to predict which patients are likely to develop resistance to endocrine therapy.
We entered EER4 into the Edinburgh BioQuarter Innovation Competition this year and reached 4th place out of 55 entries. This inspired us to enter EER4 into the Big C Competition where we were selected as semi-finalists from over 750 diverse innovations.
Tell us more about EER4? How does it work?
EER4 works by measuring the expression level of 4 genes from core-biopsies of the primary tumour taken at diagnosis and early during treatment using standard cost-effective laboratory techniques. Using this 4 gene model we can predict with a high degree of accuracy whether a patient will respond to endocrine therapy long before resistance or benefit is measurable clinically.
What impact do you hope this type of research will have on patients?
The EER4 test is a bit like catching a glimpse into the future – one that can help determine the most effective treatment plan for a particular patient. This has the potential to save many patients months of ineffective treatment, ultimately reducing the risk of disease progression or relapse. EER4 has huge clinical potential as it can identify not only the thousands of women who would benefit from endocrine therapy, but also the 20-40% who develop resistance and might therefore benefit from additional or alternative treatments.
How did you end up working with Breakthrough scientists Mike Dixon and Andrew Sims in Edinburgh?
After leaving school in 2003, I studied a BSc(Hons) in molecular biology and an MSc(Res) in genetics and pathway medicine. After taking a short break from science to work in finance for a couple of years I returned to continue my studies and applied for a Breakthrough funded PhD studentship in breast cancer under the supervision of the bioinformatician Andrew Sims and consultant breast surgeon Mike Dixon. EER4 was developed as part of my PhD, which I completed in 2013. Since then I have continued my research as a post-doctoral research associate in the Edinburgh Breakthrough team, running the lab-based research.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
Before starting my career in science I studied classical piano for a number of years, beginning when I was four years old. I still perform and record and I am currently involved in a number of music projects outside of work, including a charity release for an African cancer charity.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
The work we do is always interesting. We always have a number of different projects under way and so the work we do is varied. I am lucky that my job has a balance of both lab-based work and computer-based analysis. It’s always nice to have a scientific question or clinical need that has to be addressed, design the experiments, carry them out and then make sense of the data - essentially to see the project through to completion, always with the goal of improving the treatment of breast cancer and the lives of our patients. That’s a very strong motivation.
Give us your best science fact?
The human genome contains around 21,000 genes which carry the instructions to make proteins – the building blocks of our cells. All these genes are encoded by less than 2% of the genome. The remaining 98% is commonly called ‘junk DNA’ and contains stretches of DNA which code for around 13,000 once-active ‘pseudogenes’, which have over time been switched off in humans through evolutionary processes.
Dr Matthew Lam is Breakthrough Breast Cancer’s Senior Research Officer