Dr Anya Golder
Developing treatment options for high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC)
Around 7,500 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the UK every year with 10-year survival at only 35%. Ovarian cancer presents a great problem due to often being detected at a late stage when prognosis has worsened. In the last decade, PARP inhibitors have emerged as an exciting new therapy that have led to increased survival for many patients who are treated with them. However, roughly 50% of ovarian cancer patients are predicted to be resistant to these drugs. These patients have few other therapeutic options available to them, and hence it is of vital importance that new therapies are developed for this group of patients.
High-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC) is the most common type of ovarian cancer, accounting for 75% of epithelial ovarian cancers. It is an aggressive disease which is typically diagnosed at a late stage and develops drug resistance. New therapeutic strategies are therefore required to treat this disease.
Dr Anya Golder
We talk to Dr Anya Golder who completed her PhD on HGSOC. She details her research into new therapies and the multiple-low-dose approach.
How did you get into cancer research and come to do your PhD?
I completed my BSc at The University of Manchester in Biochemistry, and during this I elected to focus on cancer in a lot of my optional modules. I was intrigued by how cancer found these different ways to break the biological rulebook, and more and more I wanted to learn about this disease.
Following my BSc, I decided I wanted to do a PhD in cancer. I was drawn to Professor Stephen Taylor’s lab as he was looking at how different cells signal whether to die or whether to stay alive in response to chemotherapy, and how these cells decide to do so. And so in 2016 I embarked on a PhD focusing on cancer biology.
What was your PhD looking at?
My PhD involved understanding how we could measure drug responses in high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HSOC). I worked as part of a team that was building a biobank of ovarian tumour samples involving the donations of tumour samples from patients at The Christie. Once we had set up this pipeline, we were able to grow different types of ovarian tumours in the lab and test their underlying characteristics and their sensitivity to chemotherapy drugs.
What were the aims of your research?
When I began my PhD, the ovarian biobank project had only just started, but we had really grand ambitions. We wanted to get to a point where we could view the ovarian cultures on high-resolution microscopes and be able to test chemotherapy drugs on them. We hoped we could use this system to test new drugs or new drug combination strategies.
We aimed to explore a multiple low dose approach to chemotherapy. This meant that instead of treating cancer cells with a high dose of a single drug, we would treat cells with four different chemotherapy drugs at lower doses. We hypothesised that this approach may kill cancer cells, with the additional aim of preventing the emergence of cells that are resistant to chemotherapy.
What were your PhD findings?
During my PhD, the ovarian biobank expanded rapidly. I developed and optimised a test that allowed us to assess the sensitivity of chemotherapy drugs on the ovarian biobank cultures. From this I was able to test the multiple-low-dose approach combining four chemotherapy drugs and found that the combination was very effective at killing the ovarian cancer cells that we cultured from the biobank.
Further examination of this drug combination found that a low-dose combination of two specific drugs targeting the proteins ATR and CHK1 were also very effective at inducing death in ovarian tumour cells.
What are your hopes for the future of this research?
We wish to test these multiple-low-dose drug combinations on a greater number of ovarian tumour samples. By comparing to the characteristics of each tumour sample, this could help us to understand which tumour types are more sensitive to this drug combination, and therefore help us to predict which patients are most likely to benefit from this approach. If this shows promise, I really hope that a multiple low-dose drug combination can be tested in clinical trials with aim of killing the cancer cells while reducing the emergence of drug resistance.
What would you say to your donors about the importance of enabling this research?
I am very thankful to my donors, as their support not only allowed me to make discoveries to help make progress in the fight against cancer but gave me the opportunity to contribute to my team. During my PhD, our team made many interesting discoveries of which we all played a part.
Additionally, from a personal point of view, having the help from my donors really changed my life. It gave me this opportunity to do the thing I’d always dreamed of doing and become a scientist. I was surrounded by world-class researchers and facilities and to be able to have had these experiences and contribute to this field of cancer research has been truly phenomenal. So, a huge thank you to who helped fund me through this!
How did you find Manchester as a place to study?
Manchester is a fantastic place to study. I thoroughly enjoyed undertaking my BSc here which encouraged me to pursue a PhD in this city. It also helped that Manchester is home to world-leading cancer research, which made it the ideal location to undertake my PhD.
My project was very centred around Team Science where I relied on lots of other teams to teach me different techniques. The proximity of the cancer research partners, and the availability of resources really facilitated this and was the perfect environment for collaborating. I worked alongside bioinformaticians, chemists, as well as people who optimised the collection of biobank samples. I also worked alongside clinicians who could inform us about problems directly from the patient which helped us feel more connected to the patient in our research and how it would impact people.
In addition, Manchester is a fantastic city with friendly people, that attracts talent from all over the world. I will look back on my time in Manchester extremely positively.
How does it feel to be involved in cancer research?
I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to research cancer, trying to tackle one of the most complex diseases in humans. I am also aware of the number of lives that cancer has impacted, which has motivated me to work towards a future where cancer brings fewer heartbreaks.
What would your advice be for someone wanting to take a PhD?
Undertaking a PhD with a multi-year project exploring questions at the forefront of science can be an incredible experience. However, it is really important to maintain a work-life balance and explore interests outside your field of study. The university environment provides a wealth of opportunities, including sports and music clubs. I really enjoyed taking part in the North West Biotech Initiative (NBI) Consultancy Competition and helping to organise the ‘Pint of Science’ festival. Not only are these great ways to build your network, but they can also be a lot of fun.
What is your current work and how did your PhD help you get there?
My PhD really allowed me to finesse my data analysis skills and taught me how to effectively communicate my work through presentations. Therefore, I decided to turn my attention to career paths where I could utilise these skills more frequently. I am currently working as a Communication Consultant at the presentation design agency BrightCarbon, who develop compelling visual PowerPoint presentations for clients. My role involves liaising with pharmaceutical clients to understand their complex ideas, and then transforming them into visuals that are easy for audiences to engage with: that could be a diagram, a presenter script, or an animation sequence to guide the audience’s attention. I then work with designers to turn my sketches and ideas into beautiful slide decks for our clients.
Banner image taken by Anthony Tighe from the Stephen Taylor lab showing HSOC cells.