Dr Nguyen joins us from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York, USA, where she completed her postdoctoral training investigating the role of post-transcriptional regulation in normal and malignant cancer stem cells.
After receiving a Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellowship, Dr Nguyen is setting up her own independent research group in BCI’s Centre for Haemato-Oncology. The team’s research will focus on understanding the biology of normal blood stem cells and cancer stem cells. The overarching aim of the research is to devise ways to selectively kill cancer stem cells and improve treatment approaches for blood cancers, in particular leukaemia.
We recently caught up with Dr Nguyen to find out how she is settling in at the BCI and to learn more about her research and inspirations.
I have always been interested in basic research and answering fundamental questions about cellular processes. My interest in cancer research came about coincidentally during my master’s project. My research was focused on looking at how microRNA work, but I was assigned to a daily supervisor who had a particular interest in leukaemia.
When I moved to the University of Oxford for my PhD, my research focused on a fundamental question about gene expression in an inherited disease. Interestingly, the gene that I was investigating was later found to be frequently mutated in numerous types of cancer. Upon completing my PhD, I wanted to be involved with research that had the potential for clinical application, and was keen to develop my career in cancer research. I joined MSK as a postdoctoral researcher.
At MSK, it was fantastic to see how basic laboratory research was translated from bench to bedside to help patients, and it was inspiring to see how the outcomes of fundamental research can work their way along the translational pipeline to be applied to help cancer patients in the clinic.
Whilst living in America, I lost a close family friend to cancer, and it was devastating to witness. Then another close friend of mine was also diagnosed with cancer, but thankfully survived. Both experiences continue to drive my research - I hope that in the future my own research will be able to help patients in their fight against cancer.
We know very well the importance of genetic and epigenetic regulation of gene expression in the pathology of multiple types of cancers. However, the impact of post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression is still a new and emerging area of research.
There is a group a molecules called RNA binding proteins (RBPs), which are central players in post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression. My research and the research of others has shown that when these RBPs are mutated or aberrantly expressed, that can contribute to the development and progression of cancer.
Between 1,500-1,700 RBPs have been characterised in the cell, but only a very small fraction of these have been investigated in leukaemia. My lab is going to delve into this area; we hope to expand the understanding of how dysregulated post-transcriptional processes involving RBPs contribute to the initiation and progression of various types of leukaemia, particularly acute myeloid leukaemia.
Preliminary data generated during my postdoctoral research shows that there is a particular RBP important for the survival of leukaemia stem cells (LSCs), which are the population of cells that propagate the disease and cause drug resistance and disease relapse. To treat leukaemia, it is important to selectively destroy this population of cells, whilst at the same time spare the normal blood stem cells. My lab will work to understand whether this particular RBP has an impact on the survival of LSCs, and whether we can use it to target and kill this population of cells.
I will now be looking to recruit highly motivated postdoctoral researchers, laboratory technicians and PhD students to work on this project and others in my lab.
What really attracted me to the BCI was the people. The first time I spoke with Professors John Gribben and Kamil Kranc, we clicked straight away and the conversation flowed. They have been extremely supportive and provided fantastic mentorship already. I have also spoken with many other junior and senior researchers at the BCI, and everyone has been very welcoming. I instantly felt part of the BCI community.
In addition, the close links that BCI has with St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Barts Health NHS Trust creates a fantastic research environment. Many of the Group Leaders within the Centre for Haemato-Oncology are also clinicians who treat patients, and I am excited to be part of a research community that brings together basic scientists with clinical academics.
I love talking about science with other researchers - it is so inspiring. I am very enthusiastic and passionate in lab meetings and love asking questions. It is amazing how you can find yourself stuck with something, e.g. a scientific question or conveying ideas on paper, but when you discuss your ideas and work with other scientists, it can suddenly become clear.
I have only been away from the bench for a few months, but I already really miss it. I love running experiments and getting results, and it is a nice break from the computer screen. Sometimes it can be very frustrating if experiments do not go to plan, but when you get experiments that work really well and get good results it feels fantastic and makes it all worth it.
I am interested in fundamental questions, so I hope that after 5 years I would have provided more insight into how cancer cells, especially cancer stem cells, work. If I can expand our knowledge in this area to help the scientific community understand more about the biology of cancer stem cells this would be fantastic.
Along the way, if the RBPs of my interest prove to be essential to the survival of LSCs then, in the next 10 years, we may be able to develop drugs that specifically target RBPs that can help cancer patients. This is the overarching aim of my research.
I also hope that as we progress with our research projects, the findings will open up new avenues of research and I can continue to expand my team.