Dr Rille Pihlak
Senior Fellow in Medical Oncology
Meet Dr Rille Pihlak, she is from Estonia and was a clinical PhD Fellow in the HPB team from April 2016 to September 2019 and a Senior Research Fellow in the ECMT from October 2019 until March 2021. This article first appeared in The Christie Fellowship Newsletter, Issue Two, originally published in Spring 2023, read this issue on our website.
Where were you based before joining The Christie?
Before coming to The Christie in April 2016, I had just finished oncology specialist training in my home country of Estonia. I first came to do a clinical research PhD Fellowship on Pancreatic cancer in the Hepatopancreatobiliary (HPB) Team (2016-2019) and later joined the Experimental Cancer Medicine Team (ECMT) as a Senior Research Fellow (2019-2021).
What attracted you to The Christie?
I originally applied for a clinical PhD at The Christie and never really thought that I would get it. I had heard about The Christie before, as it is a large cancer centre in Europe and the people there do a lot of important and ground-breaking clinical research. However, when I went through the PhD application process for the University of Manchester and The Christie, I couldn’t believe that they actually wanted to give me the position. I had always loved working on gastrointestinal cancers back home and found pancreatic cancer really interesting and puzzling, so it was serendipitous that there was this call out for a clinical research PhD, as it was exactly what I wanted to do.
After the PhD Fellowship in the HPB team, I wanted to develop my knowledge and skills related to clinical trials, so I applied for a fellowship position in the ECMT. The team is well known for their exciting early phase clinical trials and translational research, and there were some enthusiastic people who I wanted to work with.
What did you enjoy most about your Fellowship?
Honestly, my favourite thing about both fellowships was the people that I met – I made so many friendships and collaborations that will last a lifetime. Over my 5 years of fellowships at The Christie, I met a lot of international fellows who have become good friends as well as so many amazing members of both teams who were extremely welcoming and helped me through some of the tougher parts.
However, from a work perspective, my favourite thing was being able to take part in all the research and trials at The Christie. I really learned a lot and there were so many great discussions that expanded my knowledge of cancer and its treatments. It was amazing to see research impacting patients directly, especially in the early phase trials team, and the willing, lovely patients who helped us do some really complex trials.
Honestly, my favourite thing about both fellowships was the people that I met - I made so many friendships and collaborations that will last a lifetime. Over my 5 years of fellowships at The Christie, I met a lot of international fellows who have become good friends as well as so many amazing members of both teams who were extremely welcoming and helped me through some of the tougher parts.
Dr Rille Pihlak
What was your Fellowship research project?
My PhD looked at various clinical aspects that could improve outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer. I built and ran an observational RELEVANT study that assessed patient and physician perspectives on clinically meaningful outcomes in the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancers.
I also examined the role of hyperglycaemia and diabetes on the outcomes of patients with pancreatic cancer through a comprehensive patient database looking at over 5 years of patients treated at The Christie. The last part was a translational project assessing the feasibility of evaluating BRCAness in plasma and tumour samples from patients with advanced pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
What are you doing now?
I’ve just started as Consultant Medical Oncologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, focusing on gastrointestinal cancers and cancers of unknown primary and aiming to help improve clinical research and trial activities in these areas.
What advice would you give to other Fellows to make the most of their time at The Christie?
Take part in sessions offered by The Christie and The Manchester Cancer Research Centre (we built these for you!).
Meet people and talk to them about what you are doing. If you are struggling, there are so many people around doing really interesting research, and there is always someone who can help and give advice.
Push yourself to know more: go to study days, conferences and meetings, allow yourself to get the absolute maximum out of your time at The Christie.
Also, as I helped to build parts of the fellowship programme, give feedback and talk to the team if you have some ideas about how to make it even better – this is always appreciated!
Lastly, have fun, enjoy it and socialise with the other fellows.