The future of research: meet three of our scientists working on TRACERx

Left to right: Emma Colliver, Dr William Hill and Dr Emilia LimIf you’ve been keeping up to date with our news over the last few years, you’ve probably heard of TRACERx.

For those of you that haven’t, TRACERx is our flagship lung cancer study. The largest and most detailed genetic study of its kind in lung cancer, it was awarded over £10 million in 2014 to investigate how lung cancer evolves over time and why treatments sometimes stop working.

As we approach the launch of TRACERx EVO, a new programme we’ve just announced to build on the discoveries made in TRACERx, we’ve been looking back at a lot of the exciting progress we’ve made so far in lung cancer research.

And a crucial part of that, as integral to it as the discoveries we’re aiming to make, are the people at the heart of the project.

A highly collaborative, international project, TRACERx has been at the core of a rapidly expanding lung cancer research community, one that didn’t exist before its inception.

That community has not only allowed for unprecedented collaboration between researchers across the country and the world, but for researchers in earlier stages of their career to work with and learn from world-leading experts as they progress in the project.

But don’t just take our word for it.

We chatted to three researchers working on TRACERx, Dr Emilia Lim and Dr William Hill, two postdoctoral fellows, and Emma Colliver, a PhD student, working in Professor Charlie Swanton’s lab at the Francis Crick Institute, about their work, what a day in their lives looks like, and how their paths have led to where they are today.

Let’s start with the basics. Tell us about yourself and your background

Colliver:I’ve had quite an unusual route into cancer research. I studied physics at university, and then took a leap over in a different direction to fundraising for medical research charities. Now, I’m bringing these two strands of my life together in my cancer research PhD.”

Hill: “I’ve been working on TRACERx for about three years now. I did my PhD studying the earliest stages of pancreatic cancer and how cells interact. And then I moved to Charlie’s lab to begin applying those understandings to the earliest stages of lung cancer.”

Lim: I’m a bioinformatician by training and I look at how cancers develop over time. I think I was interested in the idea of the happy marriage between computer science and biology. I was always sort of a little nerd growing up liking computer science, and it’s just amazing to know that you can use it to help study diseases.”

So, that was then. What do you work on now?

Colliver: “I’m working on looking at how the immune system is interacting with a growing lung cancer. We’re trying to understand the rules as to why some cancer treatments, which rely on the immune system, are working in some patients and not others.”

Hill: “I’ve been with TRACERx for about three years, and I study the earliest stages of lung cancer, and specifically, lung cancer in people who have never smoked.”

Lim:I look in detail about how cancers develop over time, how they begin, how they progress through one’s disease, and perhaps even right until they die. I’ve been involved in TRACERx for about four years now.”

Walk us through a day in your lives at the Crick

Colliver: “I’ll start the day with a coffee, and then come up to the desk and will usually be working in front of maybe three computer screens trying to crunch through large amounts of data. I’ll look at images of lung cancer tumours from under the microscope, and try to spot patterns between different patients, and within different parts of the same patient’s tumour.”

Hill: “I spend a lot of my time preparing and planning for experiments. As a bench scientist, you have a lot of like down days where you’re planning experiments, preparing experiments, checking on your cells. And then you have very long, hard days where you might come in very early, you might leave very late, where you really push an experiment.”

Lim: “My mornings usually begin with getting cuddles from my toddler, and then after that, getting a nice cup of tea, and then rushing into the lab to get started here.

A typical day here in the lab looks like coming in grabbing another tea or a coffee with lab mates, sitting down for discussions about what we’re going to do that day and going through our findings, then we might go back to our desks and read up all the papers that might have come out over the last few days in our field. Then, we’ll try to make connections and perform new analyses based on what we’ve discovered in the previous day.”

Since you guys know better than anyone, in simple terms, what is TRACERx? And what are the best parts of being involved?

Colliver: “TRACERx stands for Tracking Cancer Evolution through Therapy (Rx). We like a good acronym in science.

It’s a very large study looking at lung cancer outcomes. Rather than looking back at historic data that may have been collected for a particular reason, we’re really trying to understand who does walk into the clinic and present with lung cancer right now in the real world.

The programme is incredibly collaborative, we take team science very seriously. We have clinicians, we have computational scientists like me, we have wet lab scientists, all working on all sorts of parts of lung cancer research. Not even just in London but working with collaborators across the world.”

Hill: “It’s a huge investment from lots of different people to really understand the evolution of lung cancer from its earliest stages, all the way through a patient’s journey.

It’s really opened a new field of research where we can go on to explore how cancer risk factors other than smoking might be promoting disease, or how air pollution might be driving other cancers throughout the body.

My favourite thing about TRACERx is the eclectic mix of people who are involved in the project, from mathematicians to clinicians, oncologists, pathologists and PhD students. Over time, we’ve seen how these people have grown and developed and really driven the project forward in their own way.”

Lim: “I think we have an excellent second-to-none team here at TRACERx. We are a big team coming from all walks of life. And we have different expertise that we bring to the table. And it just makes for a lively discussion, because we have so many different perspectives on our work from all across the world. We just have a great time together, contributing to science.

It’s amazing that we get to work with world leading experts in various aspects of cancer research. Not only do they provide detailed expertise and experience in the field but they really add to this global community and allow us to appreciate different cultures and different ways of scientific thinking and inspire us to reach greater heights.”

And to finish off, why is TRACERx such an important project?

Colliver: “It’s a real privilege to be able to work on a programme like TRACERx at this early stage of my career. We have so many brilliant scientists collaborating and working together, all with a view to better understanding lung cancer.”

Hill: “There’s a real sense of community within TRACERx. Keeping up with everyone is probably a task in itself, but everyone’s so supportive and helpful, and we’re all driving towards the same goal.”

Lim: “This is just the first chapter in the book of lung cancer. And I really hope that our work here it can inspire younger scientists, maybe even those in school, to get excited and jump on board and be a scientist as well.”

Jacob

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