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Meet the researchers - Dr Thorsten Hagemann

Dr Thorsten Hagemann 

 Interview with Dr Thorsten Hagemann

Clinical Senior Lecturer, Centre for Cancer and Inflammation, Barts Cancer Institute. 

Described as “a rising star” in the field of pancreatic cancer research by colleagues, Dr Thorsten Hagemann holds a Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund grant for his work to optimise virotherapy, which is where a tumour is injected with a virus that has been programmed to target and destroy tumour cells without harming healthy tissue.  

What inspired your career choice?
My father – who used to say I have only two career choices - priesthood or medicine. He said that with a smile. It’s lucky that I loved science. Alternatively I would have loved to be a professional footballer. 

Where did you start out?
I am a hematologist/oncologist by training which I undertook at the University Hospital in Göttingen in Germany. But I wanted to focus on solid malignancies and felt that there were too few clinical achievements being made and progress was very slow. When I moved to Barts in 2005 I was first studying ovarian cancer and looked into ways to modulate the immune systems for therapeutic approaches. I was lucky to have had great mentors and Professor Nick Lemoine was instrumental in guiding me to pancreatic cancer.

You’re both a clinician and a researcher – is it difficult juggling both of these?
No, because that is what medical oncology is all about! There are hardly any “standard treatments” in cancer – so it is necessary we keep exploring. I would say I’m a better researcher because of my clinical work and vice versa. It is a huge but exciting challenge to develop your own research ideas from the lab to the clinic and see your work actually coming to life as a treatment option. My career allows me to participate in people’s lives and be involved in major decisions at an important and scary time for them, which is a huge privilege. 

To contribute to the development of novel treatment options and see the next generation of treatments first hand is hugely satisfying. Clinical trials will not help every patient - but to be able to make progress in medicine we need the participation of as many of our patients as possible (ideally 100%) in clinical trials. My patients understand that the new treatment will most likely not directly make an impact on their disease; however, they understand that their participation helps develop the next generation of therapies and treatments – an attitude that I find incredibly selfless and very humbling. Sometimes I am able to help, which is fantastic. 

A big advantage of my also being a researcher is that after the clinical work I have the opportunity to take this information back to the lab with the ultimate aim of improving things.  So there’s an element of being like Sherlock Holmes in using clues to make sense of what’s happened and discover how and why, which gives me great satisfaction. 

This is my dream job – I do what I love to do – and there aren’t many people who can say that. Despite frustrations, it’s rewarding and I’m very happy. 

You started your career working on ovarian cancer. What inspired you to change to pancreatic? 
I’m fuelled by my scientific interest and desire to investigate and discover and the characteristics of disease are extremely interesting as a clinician and researcher.

First – I realised the great clinical need in the disease; secondly, I was up for the challenge. But also, I had great mentors who guided me in the right direction. My main interest is in the role of the tumour microenvironment, and this is hugely important in pancreatic cancer, so I saw an opportunity to make a difference.  Even if, in real terms, this impact is only a few more weeks or months survival, this is a big impact for people who may have been given a bleak prognosis. 

How important is the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund grant to you and your team?
Although CR-UK highlights pancreatic cancer as a priority disease, there is still a low level of funding available, so the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund award makes a massive difference. It allows us to bring new ideas forward and to push the boundaries of our knowledge, which will ultimately translate into patient benefit. 

Some of our PCRF funding is being used to pay for a post-doctoral researcher, Raphael Zollinger, recruited from the Institute Curie in Paris. He is very experienced in immunology and has a wealth of skills to apply to this project which is very important because we don’t want to lose too much time in getting it off the ground. The rest of the funding from PCRF goes into the day to day costs to support the lab work and the materials we need to use and to apply the research. 

I think there is good evidence that the tumour microenvironment is an excellent therapeutic target. In particular, funding from PCRF will help to bring this field forward and to make existing and possible new therapies work better. 

How do you think research programmes will develop?
I think it would be of benefit to broaden collaboration with other disciplines such as physics, chemistry and engineering. Other than this I’m positive about the future of pancreatic cancer treatment, particularly with the shift in focus to ‘personalised medicine’. We’ve known for a while from our work that there’s a significant amount of individual difference across our patients in how they respond to treatments. The times of ‘one size fits all’ (diseases) approach are increasingly history. This is supported by recent research findings that show that pancreatic cancer should not really be classed as one disease – there are so many variations – and this change in approach will make a big difference to research programmes and treatment in the future. 

I really believe that important advances are on the horizon. We learn so much from the patient samples brought back to the lab so we can investigate in particular why new drugs don’t work. This is crucially important and will accelerate what we know about how to treat this disease. 

What do you do when you’re not working?
My wife and I have 2 children, Tommy (3) and Anna (2) – so we’re kept very busy with them!

My wife is from Holmfirth, a very beautiful part of Yorkshire and her parents live in the Lake District so we often come ‘up north’. We enjoy outdoor activities, like sailing and walking. 

Our laboratory has been involved in reading and science classes with local schools – encouraging them to enjoy science - and we really like to give back to the community in this way. It’s important to us. This outreach work is really enjoyable! If you think being a cancer researcher is hard, try answering the questions posed by classes of 5-6 year olds! They have this amazing ability to cut to the chase and ask the most difficult questions. Their clarity of thought is remarkable. My postdocs and I come back from these events completely drained from trying to answer their questions! I often think about what we could achieve if we could harness that simplicity of thought and apply it back in the lab!
Hear Dr Hagemann describing the PCRF-funded project