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

Interview with Dr Maria Niklison-Chirou, winner of BNOS Young Investigator Award 2019

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This year's winner of the British Neuro-Oncology Society (BNOS) Young Investigator Award is Dr Maria Niklison-Chirou (currently working in The Blizard Institute in London, based at Queen Mary University).

Dr Niklison-Chirou’s work aims at understanding how the metabolism of medulloblastoma brain tumours is regulated, and whether and how these tumours could be 'starved' of essential components in order to improve the efficiency of chemotherapy in patients when treating the disease.

We chatted to Maria at BNOS about her research and what winning the Award means to her.

How did you come to be working at Queen Mary University of London?

After my PhD in my home country of Argentina, I moved to the UK to further progress my scientific career. In 2009, I joined a research group working under Professor Gerry Melino at the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Leicester, as a postdoctoral fellow. The main research focus was to understand the role of the p53-family of genes in the formation of tumours. In 2014, I won a prestigious fellowship at The Blizard Institute to work on medulloblastoma, an aggressive paediatric brain tumour and a major cause of mortality in children.

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Do you have a personal connection to brain tumours?

Not to brain tumours, but cancer has affected my family - my dad has been battling colon cancer for many years now and my uncle has been struggling with a metastatic prostate cancer for two and a half years. I empathise with the physical and emotional pain that children and families are going through when affected by a brain tumour.

Either way, cancer touches our lives invariably. We all hope for the development of new and more effective treatments that are accessible to all. Rare diseases are often underfunded, so the work of the few research groups that dedicate themselves to these becomes essential for finding new treatments and bringing hope to the affected kids and their families.

Tell us a bit about your work and how it might impact on patients?

My research focuses on the development of novel drugs for the treatment of childhood brain tumours. I currently work on medulloblastoma, a paediatric brain tumour and a major cause of mortality in children. These tumours are malignant and patients have to undergo aggressive treatments leaving survivors with severe side effects. Hence, more targeted and less toxic therapies are vitally needed to improve the quality of life for patients.

I am working to understand the chemical reactions that allow tumours to grow, trying to ascertain how the metabolism of medulloblastoma is regulated, and whether and how these tumours could be starved of essential components in order to strengthen the effect of chemotherapy given to patients.

My research will contribute to the translation of understanding cancer molecular mechanism in order to develop better-targeted medicines, providing new hope to the thousands of young patients diagnosed with a brain tumour each year, as well as their families.

What are your thoughts on winning this Award and how you might spend the award money?

It is a great honour, joy and privilege to receive the BNOS Young Investigator Award 2019. This prize is a testimony of what can be achieved by hard work, drive and passion. Balancing a competitive career and home life is not an easy task. But, having a career I am passionate about has made me a better mother and a more successful researcher.

The Award will help fund my research and further my goal of becoming an independent research scientist in paediatric brain tumours. With this award, I will attend to an international conference to get key insights on paediatric brain tumours and build my research network for future collaboration opportunities. 

Pictured with BNOS President, Prof Silvia Marino (left).