Making their mark
The Royal Marsden is committed to promoting the role of women in research. The following are profiles of three women who are making a valuable contribution.
The Royal Marsden and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) are working towards achieving the Silver Award from the Athena SWAN Charter – which promotes women in science, technology, engineering, medicine and mathematics – by 2016.
The Royal Marsden and the ICR represent the only specialist Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) for cancer in the UK. They have a proud history of supporting and championing women in medical research, with several female clinicians leading studies and trials and developing new treatments. The following women are all making valuable contributions to our pioneering research.
Dr Susana Banerjee, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Research Lead, Gynaecology Unit
“It is an exciting time to be working in cancer research and to be part of the revolution, improving treatment for women with gynaecological cancers,” says Dr Banerjee. “The latest technologies and knowledge of molecular biology mean it is becoming possible to deliver precision medicine and offer personalised treatment.”
As the Chief Investigator for several clinical trials, Dr Banerjee is collaborating with scientists at the ICR to increase the understanding of genetic and molecular abnormalities to help advance treatments for women with gynaecological cancers. Her research includes developing treatments for ovarian cancer patients with a BRCA gene mutation. Drugs called PARP inhibitors have shown exceptional results.
Dr Banerjee was awarded funding for a clinical trial of the use of abiraterone – a drug developed at The Royal Marsden and the ICR that has transformed prostate cancer treatment – in ovarian cancer. “I am passionate about treating women who have gynaecological cancers,” she says. “There is an urgent need to improve treatments and survival. This can be achieved by clinicians, scientists and patients working together.”
A consultant at The Royal Marsden for two years, Dr Banerjee is a recognisable figure on the global cancer research stage and has a catalogue of awards and honours. As well as regularly presenting her research at international meetings, she is a Key Opinion Leader for the European Society of Medical Oncology’s forum Women 4 Oncology, which aims to build a network of female oncologists and help them access leadership positions.
“I am often asked for career advice from women training to be cancer specialists,” she says. “One of my key aims is to mentor the next generation of women in oncology and research and to be a positive role model.”
Dr Aisha Miah, Consultant Clinical Oncologist, Sarcoma Unit
Dr Miah developed an interest in research as a trainee in the Head and Neck Unit, where she undertook a PhD in Clinical Oncology under Professors Chris Nutting and Kevin Harrington.
“What really inspired me was the patient-centred, ‘can-do’ attitude,” says Dr Miah. “I felt encouraged by senior clinicians to pursue research – and this is still the case. During my time in the unit, I worked on local and national clinical trials, which provided me with excellent experience to develop a research programme in my current post.”
Since joining the Sarcoma Unit in 2011, Dr Miah has developed the radiotherapy research programme, participating in a Phase III study evaluating the role of pre-operative radiotherapy in retroperitoneal sarcomas, and joining with colleagues from other institutions to look at the benefits of pre-operative radiotherapy in specific histological subtypes.
“I have been grateful to BRC funding avenues for project grants for our smaller studies, which will help me to develop a larger portfolio of clinical trials and seek research grants to support the Sarcoma Research Unit,” says Dr Miah. “Sarcoma is a rare cancer so it is essential we collaborate with national and international centres to recruit patients to Phase II/III studies.”
Dr Miah praised the guidance within the unit from Research Lead Professor Ian Judson and the multidisciplinary approach to both research and the treatment of patients. “My aim is to continue to pursue the development of future clinical studies,” she says. “Helping to improve treatments and patients’ quality of life drives me.”
Miss Fiona MacNeill, Consultant Surgeon, Breast Unit
A Breast and Reconstructive Surgeon, Miss MacNeill has always had an interest in breast cancer research. It began during her time as a Clinical Research Fellow in The Royal Marsden’s Breast Unit with Professor Trevor Powles, who retired in 2003, and working in the research laboratories with Professor Mitch Dowsett, who is now Head of the Centre for Molecular Pathology.
Developing new surgical techniques is a major focus. Miss MacNeill and her surgical colleagues have been key in the development of oncoplastic breast surgery – combining the best cancer and plastic surgery techniques to maintain the breast’s appearance.
She says: “It isn’t always possible for surgeons to spend a lot of time in the lab, but by working in close partnership with scientists and other colleagues, there are many opportunities to be involved in innovative and important research.”
Miss MacNeill continues to work with Professor Dowsett and Professor Ian Smith, Head of the Breast Unit, in clinical trials. Together, they found that significant changes take place in the proteins of a breast cancer tissue sample within 30 minutes after its removal from a patient and before its arrival in the laboratory, where it is preserved for further analysis.
Miss MacNeill, who was responsible for collecting the tumour samples in the operating theatre, adds: “This collaborative study led to an important scientific paper, which will influence how we design future trials that rely on examining cancer-tissue biopsies.”