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Meet the researchers - Dr. Michael Schmid



Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund grantee Dr Michael Schmid

Interview with Dr. Michael Schmid, Liverpool University

Michael, 43, was born in Bern in Switzerland. He completed his undergraduate and Master’s degree at the University of Bern, before moving to the University of Basel to complete his PhD. He then spent six and a half years at the Moores Cancer Center, University of California, San Diego in the United States, during which time he met his wife and started a family. He moved to the University of Liverpool in 2012.

Tell me a little about your family
My Mum and Dad are in Switzerland, as is my older sister, who is a lawyer. My wife is Spanish and is also a cancer researcher, and my children (now 5 and 8) were both born in the US, and we now live in the UK, so you could say that we’re a very international family!  My family has always been very understanding about me living so far away for my work, but after nearly seven years in the US, we decided to move back to Europe and be closer to both our families. The University of Liverpool has an excellent reputation for pancreatic cancer research, which is why we chose to come here and we are happy in the UK. The weather is not as good as in California, but since I am from Switzerland, the weather in the UK is not that different to the weather in the country I grew up.

How did you get on with the Scouse accent?
It was tricky to understand at first, but luckily, people speak more slowly when they realise that English isn’t my native language. I’m used to it now, and both my children have Scouse accents. My daughter arrived with an American accent but within about 2 weeks she completely changed her accent! Both my children are multilingual and I can say they can speak German, Spanish, English and Scouse! They’re happy and settled well in the UK and have made lots of friends, so all is well.

How did you originally become interested in pancreatic cancer research?
During my postdoctoral training in the USA I was looking at the role of the immune system in cancers. At that time we were looking at melanoma, breast, lung and pancreatic cancers. I had the impression that there had been little progress in pancreatic cancer as it is a very complex disease and so much was unknown, and this caught my interest. From a scientific perspective it was shocking that the survival rate is so low, and I still find it shocking now, especially since so much progress has been made in other cancers. However, I’m convinced that this will change soon.

That’s great to hear. What makes you so confident about this? There have never been more scientists on our planet than today working on pancreatic cancerand there’s much more awareness of the disease. It’s such a complex cancer, but there have been some really important findings made in recent years, and the more people we have working on it, the more discoveries we’ll see. There are now many research groups all over the world studying pancreatic cancer and they have never had more resources than today to look  at things like genetic mutations, the immune system, cells surrounding the tumour, and how each of them or in combination affect pancreatic cancer disease progression.  The cumulative effect of this is real progress and I strongly believe we’ll soon start to see new effective treatments coming through.

How does Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund contribute to this?
In several ways:  research funding is highly competitive and it’s getting harder to secure funding from larger funding bodies such as the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK, whose funding calls may not be specific to pancreatic cancer. With PCRF it’s a fantastic opportunity to get funding for a very defined project to answer a specific question, and the grants also allow you to take on and train a PhD student. Thus, PCRF supports pancreatic cancer research in two ways, it allows to make new scientific discoveries and it helps to train the next generation of future pancreatic cancer researchers. I have enormous respect and admiration for what the charity does and what it achieves. I’d like to emphasise how our PCRF grant is funding a very talented PhD student in my lab and we’re making great progress on our project.   

Can you elaborate on your PCRF project?
My team studies how cells from our immune system affect pancreatic cancer. For many years it was thought that the immune system was there to kill cancer cells and defend us from infections and diseases but it’s now recognised that in cancer patients and in pancreatic cancer in particular, the opposite is true. The immune system gets hijacked by the cancer and suddenly starts to help it grow and spread. Pancreatic cancer is very aggressive and spreads quickly to distant organs like the liver and lungs, which makes treating it even more difficult. Our aim is to find out how the immune cells are promoting this and see if we can inhibit these cells so that the tumour remains localised and can be surgically removed or treated more effectively.

What progress can you tell us about?
The project is only half way through but we’ve already discovered that certain immune cells are critical to promoting the spread of pancreatic cancer. We’re also in contact with pharmaceutical companies that can provide us with inhibitors which can specifically block the target factors we’ve identified so we can start to test them. It’s quite an exciting stage. We’re ultimately aiming at a clinical trial – it’s our absolute goal to provide better and more effective treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Do you have any contact with patients?
Not directly through our work because we’re laboratory scientists, not clinicians. But we never forget that ultimately we’re doing this for patients. We have met patients and their families through participating in events organised by local PCRF supporters, and we’ve given talks about our research project to tell people how the money they raise will help. It’s great to meet supporters and I’m always amazed at the fundraising that goes on. My wife and I both think that the dedication and generous contributions of people to cancer research is remarkable, and it’s something that is really special about people here in the UK.