Dr Catherine Hogan
"There's lots of really good energy going into the Institute, it's a really exciting time."
Who are you?
I'm a newly recruited Research Fellow and my background is cell biology. My PhD looked at the movement of white blood cells in response to specific homing signals and how the cell cytoskeleton changes shape, giving me a good introduction to signalling and microscopy. I then moved to UCL for my post doc, changing focus from single cells to cell-to-cell interaction, looking at early tumourgenesis in epithelial tissues. And that lead me here!
What does working at a cancer stem cell research institute mean to your work?
I'm looking at the early stages of cancer but not directly in relation to cancer stem cells, but the main premise is cell-to-cell communication and the consequences of local cell-cell interactions on the expansion of the cancer cell. Normal stem cells are usually maintained within a niche in a tissue that is dependent on local interactions with other cells for its function and fate. That's also relevant for cancer stem cells because ultimately no cell is in isolation.
Could you tell me about your current research at the Institute at the moment?
In early tumourgenesis, single cells become transformed by genetic mutations; initially these usually occur in oncogenes. During my postdoctoral studies, my colleagues and I found that when one to two cells in an epithelial sheet express oncogenic Ras or Src, they get pushed out of the sheet in a process called extrusion. This study was significant because it demonstrated that mutated and normal cells recognise each other as different and this leads to changes in signalling and in their behaviour.
To understand how these cells recognise each other as different, I am looking at cell surface signalling molecules called Eph/Ephrins. Eph/Ephrins are important for establishing and maintaining tissue boundaries by recognition of adjacent cells. Some cancer cells have increased expression of Eph/Ephrin, which disrupts cell-to-cell communication and adhesion, causing them to separate or invade amongst their neighbouring cells, depending on the context.
I'm very interested in oncogenic Ras, which is associated with about 30% of human cancers and is the first mutation event in pancreatic cancer. Using pancreatic cancer cells I'm testing whether this communication between Ras and normal cells is actually relevant to cancer.
How do you see your research being applied to the bigger picture?
Pancreatic cancer is a deadly, aggressive disease; early symptoms can be mistaken for other disorders like late-onset diabetes or abdominal pain, so by the time a patient gets diagnosed it's often too late because the tumour has already spread. I hope my research will give us a better insight into the poorly understood early stages of this disease and from that we'll hopefully be able to develop diagnostic tools, for example we could identify a novel secreted protein that could be used as a biomarker. Earlier diagnosis will mean the disease is detected before it progresses, increasing the chance of successful treatment.
What does your job involve today?
Today I am going through a list of potential PhD candidates for interview for next week, my postdoc and I will have a meeting this afternoon to look over some of his data and I'm putting together figures for a paper looking at the role of Eph/Ephrin. But every day is different.
What can you gain as a researcher from working at the Institute?
There's lots of really good energy going into the Institute, it's a really exciting time. I think I can gain a lot from being embedded within a cancer research institute because until very recently I've been a basic cell biologist. Being surrounded by cancer experts will broaden my mind about addressing questions relevant to cancer as well as helping me keep in mind how my research is going to impact on a patient's life by providing the opportunity to meet people at the translational side of it all; clinicians, pharmacologists and chemists, as well as those affected by pancreatic cancer.
Coming here was also a fantastic opportunity for me to start my own research group and get ideas I had off the ground in a team with lots of really good energy.
(Interviewer: Sophie Hopkins, final year Biosciences undergraduate student)