University of East Anglia research may help defeat breast cancer by 2050

Kate Makin is carrying out research at the University of East Anglia on one of the fastest growing a

Kate Makin is carrying out research at the University of East Anglia on one of the fastest growing and exciting areas of medical science - using the immune system to target and kill cancer cells. Picture: Breast Cancer Now. - Credit: Archant

Imagine a world where everyone who develops breast cancer will live - and live well.

It may sound like the stuff of dreams but experts at the charity Breast Cancer Now reckon it could be reality by 2050.

“But,” it says, “to make that happen we need the brightest of minds tackling the toughest questions in breast cancer research.”

One of those minds belongs to 23-year-old PhD student Kate Makin, who is carrying out research funded by the charity at the University of East Anglia (UEA) on one of the fastest growing and exciting areas of medical science - using the immune system to target and kill cancer cells.

Here, Kate, who is from Norwich and a UEA graduate herself, tells us more about her work and, in the wake of Thursday’s International Women’s Day, what it’s like to be a young, female research scientist.

Can you explain more about your research

My research is focused on an enzyme called MMP8 and the potential role it plays in orchestrating immune cells to fight against breast cancer. The immune system is constantly on patrol looking for cancerous cells, just as it does against bugs that cause the common cold, for example. By understanding how the immune system and cancer cells interact, we can get closer to finding therapies that exploit the immune system to treat breast cancer.

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How did you decide to become a scientist?

I spent a long time at sixth form wanting to be a medical doctor and had this goal even until my second year as Biomedicine undergraduate. This was before I undertook a summer internship in the Edwards lab I work in currently and fell in love with scientific research. I decided that I loved the intricacies of science, investigating exactly why things happen in minute detail. Medicine couldn’t possibly give me that level of intricacy and that summer was when I decided I was going to be a scientist.

Who has inspired you?

Although definitely not a scientist, my Mum is my biggest inspiration. She has shown me the value of hard work and determination, and I attribute a lot of my work ethic to her. Another woman who has inspired me is the first researcher I encountered during my summer project: Dr Sophia Elias. Learning my techniques from such a competent and skilled researcher and the encouragement she gave me to apply for the PhD post I have now gave me confidence when I really needed it.

What do you love about working in science?

It’s a cliché, but the fact that no two days are the same is a real highlight for me. As well as a varied day, I really enjoy the camaraderie of working in a laboratory. In our lab we have seven PhD students. Having others to bounce your ideas and plans off in science is super helpful.

What has been the toughest career challenge so far?

They say the beginning is always the hardest and in science I have found this to be true. I suffered with a real lack of confidence for my entire first year as a PhD student, often comparing myself to others with much more experience and becoming frustrated that I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I wanted to with my project. Imposter syndrome, defined as “a belief that you’re inadequate despite evidence that indicates you’re skilled” is rife amongst scientists, I have fought hard to try and overcome it in my career.

And what has been your proudest moment so far?

I’m always proudest when I look back and see how far I have come since day one. Starting out in science can be a slow and overwhelming experience, and the entire first year of my PhD was essentially spent learning techniques from others, which at times was frustrating. Now 15 months in, I am much more independent, plan and execute my own work schedule and have even begun teaching others the skills I have learnt, which makes me very proud.

What message would you like to share with young girls who are aspiring scientists?

Believe in yourself and recognise that your ability to think critically, work alongside others and show passion for your subject is just as important as doing experiments. The best piece of advice I can give is to not be afraid of making mistakes and to ask questions, even if they may seem silly or obvious. Secretly, everyone is a little unsure of what they are doing and if we are all in it together then science will benefit much more than us all trying to go it alone.

Future ambitions

Holly Palmer, Breast Cancer Now research communications officer, says: “Nearly 11,500 women and 80 men a year die from breast cancer in the UK. Techniques to harness the immune system have already proven effective in treating other cancers and it’s really exciting that these could now be developed to target breast tumours. In particular, uncovering how a tumour-suppressing molecule called MMP8 could be used boost patients’ immune systems could lead to new therapies. Our ambition is that by 2050, everyone who develops breast cancer will live, and this project could bring us one step closer to achieving this goal. We’re proud to be funding the brightest minds tackling breast cancer – and if we are to achieve our 2050 vision, it’s vital we continue to invest in the research leaders of tomorrow, like Kate.”

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