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Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer

Beating the Blood-Brain Barrier - Interview with Research Fellow, Dr Zaynah Maherally

by Natasha Pile

To achieve our mission, we need to nurture and encourage talented young researchers in the field of neuro-oncological research if we are to make significant progress into finding a cure for this devastating disease. 

Research Fellow, Dr Zaynah Maherally, undertook her PhD within our Centre of Excellence at University of Portsmouth (UoP) and has been based there ever since. It is thanks to your support that she can continue her vital research into pioneering treatments for brain tumours. We spoke to Zaynah about her career so far and what she imagines for the future of this brain tumour research. 

When and how did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in scientific research?

I was doing my internship at the Hospital of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and was posted in the cytology unit. From there I was seeing oncology patients for biopsies almost every day. That experience deepened my interest in scientific research but more specifically in oncology research. 
What appeals to you specifically about working within the field of neuro-oncological research?

The challenge – brain tumours behave differently compared to other cancers and it’s vital that we learn why the prognosis for brain tumour patients is so poor. Also, the reward of knowing that every step brings us closer to a finding a cure, giving hope to many patients and their families. 
How did you first get involved with University of Portsmouth and how has this helped to shape your career?

I finished my MSc in Biomedicine at the Curtin University in Australia and was looking for a PhD in the UK with a specific focus on cancer research in humans.  I was offered a place with Geoff Pilkington, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Neuro-Oncology at UoP. My PhD studied some of the key components associated with the development and spread of tumours within the brain. In particular, I focused on two factors which are present on the surface of tumour cells – CD155 and CD44 – which both play a role in the invasion of tumour cells into surrounding areas of the brain. If we understand the key factors associated with this process, we may be able to develop new drugs which will prevent it.

My work includes exploring the mechanisms for how some types of cancer cells spread to the brain. Unfortunately, many treatments for cancer in the body, such as chemotherapy, are delivered through the bloodstream and the blood-brain barrier prevents these from crossing into the brain. The blood-brain barrier (B-BB) is a powerful protector for the brain, guarding it against toxins travelling in the blood. 

Knowing that the animal model of the B-BB did not directly relate to the human brain, we have created a unique, three dimensional, all-human version that can be used by researchers in the lab. This model uses only human brain cells, human brain glioma (tumour) cells and human serum. 

Having this exclusive model of the B-BB is enabling me to carry out leading research at the University of Portsmouth into the genetic control of brain tumours and test ways in which to deliver potentially new therapeutic drugs to target brain tumour cells.

The exposure and expertise gained here at Portsmouth has deepened my drive to carry on this ongoing battle to find a cure for brain tumour patients.
In your opinion, what is needed to progress research into brain tumours on order to achieve similar survival rates and more effective treatments (similar to those available for breast cancer patients)?

  1. Funding – more funding is desperately needed to inject into sustainable research.

  2. More specific brain tumour meetings where leaders meet and discuss up-to-date questions, answers and the way forward based on this. 

  3. Focused collaborative work across the UK – so as to progress not waste time and resource repeating the same research. It’s great to see how Brain Tumour Research is developing these sorts of collaborations and leadership meetings through their annual scientific research workshops.

  4. Not so stringent (in a good logical and realistic way) in clinical trials, it takes years to even get a drug into clinics.

Where do you hope to be in five years’ time?

I strongly believe that the opportunities here at UoP such as setting up national and international collaborations, learning of the current challenges and novel techniques used to devise therapies to treat brain tumours, as well as interacting with key leaders in brain tumour research, will further helped expand my interest in brain tumour invasion and metastasis, as well as contributing to my understanding of this debilitating disease. I am confident that I will be sufficiently equipped to develop into a principal investigator in brain tumours in the future. 

This article originally appeared in Believe - Issue 009 - Summer 2017.