PhD Student – Helena Emich

Helena Emich was a previous PhD student at the Blizard Institute, funded by Saving Faces. Here she answered questions about her project which looked at the mechanisms that allowed oral cancer to spread around the body.

How did you come to do a PhD in oral cancer? 

I got interested in cancer research during my undergraduate degree in Biology at Humboldt University Berlin. I find it fascinating being able to carry out research that might help patients fight cancer and perhaps even save lives.

After completing my undergraduate degree I was very lucky to be offered a PhD studentship investigating oral cancer at Queen Mary University of London under the supervision of Professor Ian Mackenzie and Professor Iain Hutchison.

What is your project about?

I work on oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC, commonly referred to as oral cancer), which is the 6th most common type of cancer worldwide. Despite recent advances in treatment, the mortality amongst OSCC patients remains too high. It is therefore very important to understand why oral cancer fails to respond to treatment in order to develop more efficient treatment strategies to help more patients.

There is now evidence that tumours consist of different populations of cancer cells.  Only a minority of cells in the tumour has the ability to divide indefinitely, producing more and more cancer cells. These cells are called “cancer stem cells”. Sometimes these cells can leave the primary tumour and initiate new tumours in other parts of the body.

Looking at cancer stem cells, my PhD project focuses on comparison of oral tumours that have formed neck lymph node metastases with tumours that have not metastasised. Pinpointing the fundamental differences between tumours that are able to spread in the body and tumours that are not able to do so could hugely improve cancer diagnosis and treatment.

What did you find so far? What are the implications of your work?

My findings show that oral tumours that have formed lymph node metastases in the neck have a higher proportion of cancer stem cells as compared to tumours which did not metastasise. These findings support the hypothesis that cancer stem cells are implicated in cancer migration, invasion and spread. I have developed a method that allows me to culture and expand cells derived from oral tumours. These so called “cell lines” can be used as models to study features of cancer stem cells present in individual tumours and, in particular, to examine differences between metastatic and non-metastatic tumours.

Revealing these differences would help researchers develop drugs that target migration and invasion of cancer cells and ultimately stop cancer from spreading.

Furthermore, the ability to predict whether or not the primary oral tumour has the ability to spread to other sites of the body would help choosing most appropriate treatment for each patient, saving unnecessary treatment and thereby minimising side effects.

Who are the people who help you with your research?

I am lucky to have the opportunity to work with excellent scientists and clinicians. Both of my supervisors Professor Ian Mackenzie and Professor Iain Hutchison are very well known specialists in their respective fields. I receive a lot of support and valuable advice from my supervisors as well as from my colleagues at the Blizard Institute Dr Adrian Biddle and Luke Gammon. I would also like to acknowledge the pathology support of Professor Kim Piper. Kim samples tumour tissue for me and helps me a lot with interpreting and evaluating the clinical reports. Finally, my work would not be possible without the financial support by Saving Faces for which I am most grateful.