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How I convinced my audience that personalised medicine can change the world


"I never imagined I would be in central London, speaking at a debate about the importance of biological research." Laura Danielson reflects on her invitation to talk at an event hosted by the Society of Biology.

Posted on 07 November, 2014 by Laura Danielson

As an excited, budding biologist growing up in the far northwest corner of the United States, I never imagined that I would be standing at a podium in central London as an invited speaker in the middle of a debate about the importance of biological research.

The debate was hosted by the Society of Biology as part of the celebration of Biology Week, and was designed to engage the general public about the importance of biology. It pitted speakers from across the UK against each other to try and convince the audience that their area of biological research will change the world.

I had been asked to speak on behalf of the field of biomedicine, and talk specifically about my research on personalised medicine and targeted cancer therapy. So, there I was at the podium, with my nerves on high and my heart racing. I was third in line to speak and we have just heard from my ‘opponents’ Professor John Lucas of Rothamsted Research, who spoke about our need to investigate methods of crop protection to feed the world, and Dr Michele Stanley of the Scottish Marine Institute, who spoke about the importance of biofuels so that our world will survive its ever growing demand for energy. Speaking after me was Dr Aldo Faisal of Imperial College London, who spoke about bioengineering and the ways he is using his research to empower those who suffer from neurological or motor disorders.

As I walked up to the podium I took one last deep breath and I was ready to deliver my ‘sales pitch’. I knew I only had 10 minutes to impress upon the audience the importance of my field of biology.

My talk focused on how we are trying to reduce the number of deaths associated with cancer by using personalised medicine and targeted therapies. Personalised medicine is the ability to understand, on a molecular level, each individual patient’s tumour and to then apply specific, or targeted, treatment based on this knowledge.

I gave an example from my own research about how we are applying this methodology to develop targeted therapies for patients with high-risk neuroblastoma. It was back in 2008 when a common mutation in the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene was identified in neuroblastoma. To address the biological consequence of this gene mutation we genetically engineered a mouse to express the most common ALK mutation, along with MYCN amplification, in the developing nervous system. This model faithfully recapitulated the development and progression of human neuroblastoma, and is now an essential part of our preclinical drug development programme. Using this model, we are now investigating the efficiency of specific ALK inhibitors as a targeted therapy against ALK-driven neuroblastoma.

As a direct consequence of this work, we will actively pursue development of clinical trials for patients with neuroblastoma. This is our ultimate goal; to bring novel therapies to the clinic that will result in saving the lives of those struck with cancer.

As I spoke about what we do, how we do it, and importantly why we do it my enthusiasm and excitement about this era of biomedical research and personalised medicine couldn’t be contained.  This is the exact reason I jumped at the chance to do this debate. I truly believe that the work we do at The Institute of Cancer Research will be translated to clinical benefit, so all I had to do was speak from the heart, explain clearly about why we do what we do, and convey the immense impact of our research.

Apparently, this resonated with the crowd because after the ballots were in, and the votes were counted, it was announced that, indeed, biomedical science and personalised medicine are most likely to change the world!!!!

For me, participating in this event wasn’t about winning, or even the deceptively delicious box of chocolates each speaker received, it was about inspiring the audience with my story. If I am honest, it was also about motivating myself too. The questions and feedback from the crowd, the young scientists I got to engage with after the event, and the votes of affirmation from the people that believe in what we do I found personally very inspiring.

These events allow us researchers to revisit the big picture, to take a step back from the minutia of a particular experiment, and refocus on the meaning of it all. I encourage all researchers to seek these sorts of outreach opportunities. I believe that we can make an even greater impact on biology, by not only by being at the bench, but through things such as speaking with the public, inspiring the younger generations or encouraging fundraisers to donate to our cause. With all this momentum going our way, it will never be a question of if biomedical research will change the world, it will be a question of by how much?

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