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

Two Minutes With... Sumana Shrestha - Researcher in translational neurology at University College London

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Can you tell me a bit about yourself? 

I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. I lived there with my grandparents until I was seven, after which I moved to the UK to live with my parents. I would say I was exposed to science from an early age; my grandad used to be a pharmacist, and we would often talk about basic science. After moving to the UK, although I had formed a keen interest in science, sports became my main focus. Alongside this, I also spent much of my teen years visiting art galleries and creating my own art. This happens less frequently now, but I am trying to balance this alongside my time in labs.

What drew you to neuroscience and brain tumours in particular?

During my A levels, I came across the concept of neuronal transmission and a few neurological disorders in my human biology lessons. Although this was brief, I was intrigued by the complexity and potential for discovery within this field. This led me to pursue Neuroscience at degree level. It was during the third year of my degree that I initially came across brain tumours. My fascination grew the more I learned about the mechanisms behind these tumours; I was very curious about what facilitates their challenging nature. Adding to this, I also became aware of the lack of attention being paid towards brain tumours, which really motivated me to try to change this.

What exactly are you researching at the moment?

Currently, I am working in Professor Sebastian Brandner’s research group at the University College London Institute of Neurology, where we are trying to tackle the devastating disease glioblastoma. Professor Brandner’s team have found a specific “biomarker” (these are markers which indicate the biological state of an individual) which has shown to act as an indicator of glioblastoma. In my project, I aim to target and manipulate this biomarker, by decreasing its level, to delay tumour growth. In the success of the experiments, we hope to produce a therapeutic mouse model for glioblastoma.

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What is your typical day in the lab?

One of my favourite things about working in the lab is that there is no ‘typical’ day. Every day brings a new challenge, and to make sure I am prepared for this, I spend a lot of time reading relevant scientific literature in the office. I check my cells to see if they’re happy and carry out the planned experiments accordingly. For example, I will spend one week making a virus to deliver a genetic product, and the following week, I will test the virus in cells to see if they work and how well they work.

What is the biggest challenge in your research area?

It has to be the diverse characteristics of tumour cells. It is very difficult to develop one specific drug, for one type of cancer, or even a sub-type within a specific type of cancer. This is mainly due to the huge range of DNA mistakes present and possible in each individual diagnosed with cancer, which makes it impossible to treat all cancers the same way. Although, we have gained extensive knowledge in this field from genomic studies, and have benefited from the recent advances in precision medicine, we still have a long way to go in brain tumour therapy. 

What do you hope to achieve in your research?

One major goal I hope to achieve is to improve the accuracy of clinical models for brain tumours and our understanding of tumour development, and produce viable drugs to delay tumour growth. This is an important aspect of cancer therapy as, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, we are focusing on a specific genetic target, to produce a more accurate recapitulation of the tumour, which will hopefully increase the likelihood of success in clinical trials.

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