PHILIPPA DARBRE, 54, SENIOR LECTURER IN ONCOLOGY, READING UNIVERSITY
What is the nature of your research? My research interests centre around the role of oestrogen and oestrogen-mimicking chemicals in breast cancer.
Most of the work is molecular cell biology involving studying their effects on human breast cancer cells in culture.
How did you get into your area of research? I began my career with a BSc in biochemistry from Birmingham University and a PhD in natural sciences (biochemistry) from Cambridge University. As an undergraduate, I became very interested in gene expression, and for five years I studied globin gene expression at the Molecular Medicine Institute in Oxford where I held the first Oxford University Nuffield medical research fellowship.
I then moved to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund laboratories in London where, as head of the cellular endocrinology laboratory, I spent nine years studying how oestrogen regulation affects the growth of breast cancer cells. Breast cancer cells have a remarkable ability to circumvent anything that impedes their growth. If we could understand what makes cells stop responding to oestrogen, we might be able to prolong the effectiveness of hormonal treatments.
When I moved to Reading in 1991, I found myself in a new environment with colleagues investigating the effects of environmental pollutants and I became fascinated by the suggestion that polychlorinated biphenyls might be able to bind to the oestrogen receptor.
Today, the ability of many pollutant chemicals to mimic oestrogen action is established, but in view of the ability of such lipophilic chemicals to accumulate in human breast fat, it has been impossible for me not to wonder about whether they play a role in breast cancer. The suggestion that such chemicals might enter the breast from the application of underarm cosmetics came originally from an undergraduate student in my laboratory, which illustrates the integral role of undergraduates in university life.
Research funding: I have received numerous grants from charities and government and research council sources for work on oestrogen action over the past 25 years. But support for the study of environmental causes of breast cancer is more difficult to find.
Teamwork: Lives are not lived in a vacuum and I owe my thanks to very many people who have supported me through the years. This includes many senior academic colleagues in this country and abroad, and it includes many scientists who have passed through my laboratory, again from this country and overseas. As a working wife and mother, it also includes an extremely supportive husband, children and parents.
Research high point: The highest points are always those precious moments when, after struggling with an issue, the resolution suddenly appears. I doubt if I shall ever forget the chance suggestion from an undergraduate that the chemical constituents of underarm cosmetics might be involved in the rising incidence of breast cancer. It felt rather as if I had been struck by a bolt of lightening.
Research low point: Low points usually come on receipt of the letter that tells of a failed grant application. It is my view that excellent research does not always require massive sums of money, but it is not possible to continue without some financial provision.