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Meet the researchers - Professor Nick Lemoine

Prof Nick Lemoine

Interview with Professor Nick Lemoine, Director of Barts Cancer Institute and Centre Lead, Centre for Molecular Oncology

Professor Lemoine and his team are currently evaluating the role of protein isoform ΔNp63α in a new transgenic mouse model that mimics a highly aggressive sub-type of human pancreatic cancer.

Was a career in research always your intention?
I trained in Medicine at Barts – or St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical College as it was known then – but I’d always been interested in research. In my degree I specialised in physiology and oncology and, after graduating, I spent some time in surgical roles. That’s where I came across my first pancreatic cancer patient, who made a real impact on me. Unlike other patients I’d seen who would arrive with a certain condition, have an operation, recover and be discharged, the pancreatic cancer patient died without even leaving hospital - and there was nothing we could do about it.

Is that what inspired you to become involved in cancer research?
Moving on to specialise in pathology - which I see as the interface between basic laboratory research and clinical medicine - I was lucky enough to get in at the ground floor of a molecular revolution when the first work on mapping the human genome and cloning was being carried out. This work has had a big impact on cancer treatment and inspired me to study for a PhD about the genetic basis of thyroid cancer. It’s not a common cancer but, after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, there was an outbreak of thyroid cancer caused by exposure to radiation. I looked at the differences between thyroid cancer caused by radiation and naturally-occurring thyroid cancer. I found it fascinating that the genetic fingerprint of a disease could be mapped and used to research potential treatments.

And why the interest in pancreatic cancer in particular?
Well, it really stems from meeting that first pancreatic cancer patient early on in my career. Whilst working at Imperial Cancer Research Fund, the Chief Scientist, Sir Walter Bodmer, asked me what my ‘big challenge’ was going to be - to which I replied: “Defining the causes of pancreatic cancer and coming up with a treatment.” Now, 20 years later, we have the tools to apply our knowledge of genetics and molecules to the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, offering patients hope of containing the disease so that it does not spread around the body. After spells at different hospitals in London and Cardiff I’m also back at Barts, where it all started for me. I never expected to come back here, but it’s a pleasure as we’re blessed with a fantastic new cancer hospital which has great facilities for both research and patient care. Barts medical school is also really committed to pancreatic cancer and we have recruited some real stars to focus on new treatments for this disease.

 What progress do you think has been made recently?
I think we’re edging towards early diagnosis markers and possible screening for pancreatic cancer. We have a range of targets for therapy and I’m particularly excited about a vaccination that we’re working on, using viruses that raise the profile of pancreatic cancer to the immune system. It’s worked well in animal models and, with the right level of funding, it could be used on patients in two years’ time – subject to toxicology results and successful manufacture of the vaccine to clinical grade.

You’re chairman of PCRF’s Scientific Advisory Panel which assesses applications for funding from researchers. What do you notice about the number and quality of applications?
It has been really encouraging that so many talented scientists and clinicians are now applying for grants from PCRF, often choosing to make pancreatic cancer the main focus of their research programmes. The level of competition is fierce because their proposals are all so strong, and that has to be good news for those with, or at risk of, pancreatic cancer.

Is the funding of researchers vital to making progress with pancreatic cancer?
PCRF has always made a priority of identifying ‘high risk but high reward’ research, and the recent showcase at the Supporters Conference showed just how that is starting to pay off with discoveries and innovations that could be transformational in clinical practice. You shouldn’t underestimate the value of the community that PCRF has brought together, with researchers and supporters sharing a common vision of what is important to make progress. It really is a good time to be in pancreatic cancer research and we have reason to be optimistic that we will soon be able to diagnose the disease much earlier and treat it much more effectively. That is, in no small part, due to the ambition and imagination of the PCRF.

Do you still have time to be hands-on in the lab?
Absolutely. In fact, I’ve recently stood down from a number of administrative posts to get the old lab coat back on! It’s a challenge to blow away the cobwebs and we’ve been fortunate to recruit a large group of early career researchers who are all incredibly committed and enthusiastic – just what’s needed to keep driving progress into pancreatic cancer. In fact, I’m hoping that they can teach this old dog some new tricks!

With your research and PCRF commitments, do you have time for hobbies?
I certainly do, but some are work-related, in that I’ve been the editor of the journal Gene Therapy for a number of years and I also serve on a lot of international committees. The upside, though, is the opportunity to travel. For the past few years we have been running a research centre in China and I became fascinated by the culture, food and history of the country. Motorbikes have been an enduring hobby of mine since boyhood – I’m between bikes at the moment but intend to get another, although I’ll reserve it for leisure use rather than commuting.
Hear Professor Lemoine describing the PCRF-funded project
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