TCRN Travel story | Eileen McGowan, PhD - 2017 R2 Professional Development Grant

23 February 2018

Conference: NCRI Cancer Conference, Liverpool, UK, November 2017

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your research?

Cancer affects everyone at some stage in their lives and I am no exception. At the age of 36 my mother past away leaving 3 children under the age of 4. She would not have died of cancer today. Serendipity, my choice to become a cancer researcher was not based on my loss, I was lost. I wanted to contribute to life, because I had a life, and when the opportunity presented, when I had children of my own, I grabbed it. I completed my PhD in breast cancer and for the past 15 years have worked in the cancer field. In 2003 I received a prestigious Susan G Komen Breast cancer fellowship and in 2007 a CINSW fellowship mainly focusing on triggers of endocrine resistance. During my career in cancer research I have produced over 100 peer-reviewed publications and conference abstracts/presentations. I have mentored and supervised over 40 individual research-intensive cancer-related projects including internships, honours, Masters and PhD. Although my present projects still relate to breast cancer I have extended this to looking at common underlying signalling events that contribute to more than one cancer. 

Could you tell us about the conference you went to and why you chose to attend this conference?

NCRI (National Cancer Research Institute) is one of the most comprehensive cancer-specific conferences worldwide and the most prestigious in the UK. The conference invites participants from the international scientific, clinical, industry and cancer consumer communities. Plenary speakers are internationally recognized presenting contemporary advances in cancer research. The interactive conference program is accessible instantly, literally at your fingertips on your mobile phone.  Parallel sessions are available on-line and access to all posters are also instantly available on-line.

Similar to the goals and key learning outcomes of the CINSW, the NCRI involves people affected by cancer in their research development strategies. The NCRI involves cancer patients and loved ones through the NCRI consumer forum, whom contribute to all areas of the NCRI work.  They actively and regularly inform the public on cancer research developments through social media, newsletters and press releases. NCRI bring together experts, including oncologists, radiotherapist, pathologists, psychologists, to cancer researchers, to discuss and build research capacity. NCRI co-ordinate key clinical studies and clinical trials units to ensure high quality data, designed and coordinated for translation into patient benefits. In addition, NCRI initiates programs for caring for patients' well-being, with and beyond cancer. The NCRI conference brings together all this expertise on annual basis, for discussion for the benefit of the general public and internationally renowned scientists and clinicians.

What would be the most important outcomes of the conference for you?

Important outcomes from the conference would have to include key learnings, people I met leading to new potential collaborations. The NCRI cancer conference showcases the latest advances in cancer research over an intensive four-day period. The informative and interactive sessions targeted a multidisciplinary audience with a key focused interest on cancer research. One of the main aims of the NCRI conference is to accelerate progress in the cancer-related research area through actively encouraging collaborations. This conference is an excellent venue for imparting and gaining information on the latest techniques in cancer treatment and promising new treatments. Of particular interest were the developments in 1) immunological-based cancer therapies and 2) a strong focus on exercise and metabolism in cancer prevention, which I found of particular interest. Increasing my knowledge on the current status of cancer treatment and how my research contributes to this field has been a very rewarding experience and hopefully opened the door for new ideas. 

Could you tell us about your presentation at the conference?

The presentation at NCRI cancer conference included our work on defining the role of a major tumor suppressor gene, p53 in breast cancer metabolism. As part of the e-poster presentation I gave a 10-minute talk on the duplicity of p53 in breast cancer: how it may act as a key regulator/switch in normal breast development and its role in cancer.

Were there any new knowledge or strategies from the conference you found interesting and possibly an interest of other TCRN members?

Two sessions/symposiums I found of interest as both a lay person and a cancer scientist were:
  1. The primary prevention of cancer: The role of diet, nutrition and physical activity
  2. The link between tumour metabolism and tumourigenesis

The understanding that exercise is forefront in cancer prevention is becoming a very popular however the underlying mechanisms of how our metabolism changes in response to exercise is still an underexplored area of cancer research. As my work is closely aligned with the changing cell metabolism in cancer, as a scientist it is a fascinating area of research. Large NCRI cancer grants are currently being invested in the prevention of cancer through these diet, nutritional and physical activity programs. 

How can your research translate into improvements in patient care and clinical outcomes?

The study of breast cancer metabolism activated through protein changes such as p53, known as the guardian of the genome, will help us to move forward in understanding the cause of breast cancer and why breast cancer becomes resistant to current treatments. Hopefully this will lead to improved treatments with less recurrence.

Could you tell us about your membership with the TCRN? 

I have been a member of TCRN since its conception as a basic cancer researcher. I, and my PhD student, Diana Hatoum, have been fortunate to have received conference grants from TCRN and my PhD student was fortunate to receive a TCRN top-up grant to complete her PhD. Diana is a single mother with 2 children and without the top up grant it would have been difficult financially to complete her PhD. Diana attended TCRN workshops and presentations regularly, presenting her PhD project, defining a role for p53 in breast cancer. 

You received funding to attend the conference – could you tell us about the difficulties of obtaining funding for these sorts of activities and how the TCRN fills a need?

In this day and age, where funding for basic cancer research is negligible, small contributions to help to attend overseas conferences, such as the NCRI cancer conference, gives cancer researchers like myself encouragement to fight on, despite no funding and no regular income. It keeps alive the ‘Spark’, doing something you can be very quietly proud of, being part of the international cancer research community.