A GLASGOW cancer scientist who himself survived the disease as a child has been chosen as the face of a new campaign designed to save lives.
George Skalka, 28, a researcher at the city's Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma aged just eleven years old. Now, days after graduating with his doctorate in cancer research, he is launching Cancer Research UK's campaign for World Cancer Day in Scotland and urging Glaswegians to join him by wearing the charity's Unity Band on February 4.
The Unity Band is available in three different colours – pink, navy and blue. It can be worn in memory of a loved one, to celebrate people who've overcome cancer or in support of those going through treatment.
Every hour, around 4 people are diagnosed with cancer in Scotland. By making a donation for a Unity Band, people across the city will be raising money for life-saving research which will help give people like George the chance of a bright future.
George said: "I owe my life to research. While cure rates for cancer are getting better, they will stagnate without continued funding. There's still lots of people who need help, and there are many things we still don't understand about cancer. Funding for research is vital so that we can ensure everyone survives cancer, not just a lucky few."
Scientist George, who lives in Bearsden with wife Holly who also works in cancer research, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma in September 2002 after his parents rushed him to hospital because he was having difficulty breathing. Doctors there found a large swelling on his neck and numerous tumours in his chest, indicating the cancer had spread to his lungs.
Lymphoma means cancer of the lymphatic system, which is an important part of the immune system. In Hodgkin lymphoma, cells in the lymph nodes become cancerous. Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma means the cancer has spread to parts of the body outside the lymph nodes.
Just six days after starting secondary school, George had to undergo surgery to remove the affected lymph nodes, followed by a gruelling regime of chemotherapy – a combination of six powerful cancer-killing drugs and steroids that made him very sick. But George says it's thanks to research that the type of chemotherapy he had saved his life.
He said: "There was a study done the year before I was diagnosed which recommended a chemotherapy combination called ABVD ChlVPP in stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma patients. The study had shown the new treatment combination was really effective at curing Hodgkin's so I was put on that regime.
"It was quite intense chemotherapy, a mixture of tablets and injections. I was on it for eight months and a lot of the treatments involved going in once, twice a week to have infusions over a 12-hour period. But it worked wonderfully, and I was in complete remission after the treatment."
As his immune system was suppressed by the chemotherapy, George was at risk of serious infection and was unable to go to school while undergoing his treatment. He spent much of his time instead with his grandparents Tony and Barbara, to whom he became very close. Tragically the family lost them both to cancer. It was a double hammer blow when Tony was diagnosed with prostate cancer while George was undergoing his treatment. He died eight months later in April 2004. Barbara died from breast cancer in November 2019.
George says it was having to say goodbye his beloved grandparents, as well as his own cancer experience, that inspired him to become a scientist to try and find new treatments for the disease.
He said: "When my grandad was ill, I said to my grandma I wanted to be a cancer researcher. I've always loved biology and it was pretty much from then I decided, and then just pursued it for the entirety of my education."
Driven to find new ways to beat the disease that has had such a huge impact on himself and his family, George studied Biological Sciences at the University of Warwick then a Masters in Cancer Sciences at the University of Birmingham. He started studying for a PhD at the University of Leicester before transferring to Glasgow's Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in October 2019. His research has led him to uncover a protein that plays an important role in making cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy. More research is needed, but the discovery could mean that in the future doctors could test patients for this protein to determine if radiotherapy would be the most effective treatment for them, or whether they would be better to try another therapy.
From beating cancer himself, to finding new ways to help other people to beat the disease in the lab, the young scientist has been on a remarkable journey. And last Friday, 17 January, saw him mark another major milestone as he graduated with his PhD from the University of Leicester.
Now he is looking to continue his research in hard-to-treat cancers, such as pancreatic cancer and lung cancer, where he says he feels he can really make a difference. Reflecting on his own cancer experience, George says he also feels driven in his research to find kinder treatments. He has struggled with some of the side effects of the treatment he had as a child which have affected him later in life, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and hormonal imbalances, as well as the mental impact his experience has had on him.
He explained: "When I was diagnosed with cancer, I don't think I understood what was going on. My parents said when the doctor explained how tough the treatment would be, my response was 'Bring it on.' I think kids are quite robust, so the way they react to things is zero fear. It was only when I got older and I realised what had actually happened that I started to comprehend how it had turned out, and it hit me quite hard.
"I think, particularly for childhood cancers, there's a real problem with the mental outcome of being ill as you get older. I think doctors are now realising that, and there's more help now, but when I was ill there wasn't anything really. I think it's coming to face mortality, you do it at a much earlier age than the average person and you're too young to do it really. The side effects are difficult to deal with – for me it's hard being extremely tired all the time and it can get me quite down. As someone who's been through cancer treatment as a child, I want to let people know it's OK to feel like that. You're allowed to feel rubbish. You can still have a full and happy life, it doesn't have to limit you – it's just something you need to talk about. People understand. I think it's important to talk, that's what helped me in the end."
He continued: "My own experience drives me to find treatments with less toxicity. I know what it's like to be treated with drugs that have a massive impact on your body, and how hard it is to deal with the after-effects.
"That's why I'm asking people in Glasgow to show their support on World Cancer Day and help Cancer Research UK to tackle this devastating disease with better, kinder treatments. Just by wearing a Unity Band we can all make a real difference to people with cancer."
World Cancer Day is an international movement, uniting people around the world on 4 February to beat cancer.
In the UK, one in two people will be diagnosed with the disease at some point in their lifetime.
The good news is, thanks to research, more people are surviving than ever before. Survival has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK and Cancer Research UK's work has been at the heart of that progress.
But there is still so much more work to do. That's why this World Cancer Day, the charity is calling on everyone to raise money to help accelerate progress and save more lives.
Dr Victoria Steven, Cancer Research UK's spokesperson in Scotland, said: "We are very grateful to George for his support and showing how important it is for everyone to wear a Unity Band on World Cancer Day.
"Our research has played a role in developing 8 of the world's top 10 cancer drugs and we're working every day to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. But we can't do it alone.
"By making a donation of just £2 for a Unity Band, Glaswegians will be funding world-class research to help more people, like George, survive. Together, we will beat cancer."
The Beatson Drug Discovery Unit (DDU) has recently entered into a collaboration with Novartis to progress its ground-breaking work on the development of KRAS inhibitors.
KRAS belongs to a family of proteins commonly mutated in cancer. The genetic instructions for RAS proteins are altered in 30% of all cancers, and mutations are even more frequent in lung, colorectal and pancreatic cancer. These changes drive KRAS to be constantly active – similar to a stuck key on a keyboard - instructing cells to divide uncontrollably and produce more and more cells. In some cancer types, KRAS mutations are particularly aggressive and are linked to a higher number of cancer deaths.
For many decades, it has been difficult to find a direct pharmacological approach to target RAS proteins and they have been labelled 'undruggable'. While targeting direct binding with KRAS, the Beatson DDU has managed a significant breakthrough building on their leading expertise in fragment and structure based drug design. This drug development strategy screens a library of very small molecules called fragments and aims to identify binding pockets to target on the protein that will enable us to stop KRAS functioning in cancer patients. Using X-ray crystallography and computational chemistry, our chemists aim to grow these fragments into powerful and potentially effective drugs that can be used safely in clinical trials.
Through a negotiation with Sixth Element Capital, the fund manager for the Cancer Research Technology Pioneer Fund (CPF), Novartis will work together with the Beatson DDU to develop KRAS inhibitors further and has the option to exclusively licence certain drugs arising from this partnership. Novartis is making an upfront payment to CPF but will also contribute to funding ongoing research in the DDU for the duration of the collaboration, alongside continued support from CPF and CRUK. This will bring additional technical expertise and resources to the project, accelerating the delivery of potential drugs to benefit cancer patients.
Click here to read more from Cancer Research UK.
The Beatson Institute is delighted to welcome Dr Payam Gammage as a Junior Group Leader. Payam joins the Institute from the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, University of Cambridge where he developed methods to manipulate mitochondrial DNA and applied them to study mitochondrial dysfunction in cell and animal models.
Mutations of mitochondrial DNA are found in the majority of all solid tumours, often at levels that should be capable of impairing the normal function of the mitochondria, which are described as the 'powerhouse' of the cell. Mitochondrial dysfunction in cancer is associated with a switch in the cell's energy metabolism from oxidative phosphorylation to glycolysis, however the contribution of mtDNA mutations to this process is not yet clear. Payam's group here at the Beatson will be investigating the role of the mitochondrial genome in human cancer. With the eventual aim of identifying new therapies for cancers bearing mutations in their mitochondrial DNA, the lab is particularly interested in studying their role in carcinogenesis as well as tumour formation and metastasis.
Payam has said 'I am genuinely thrilled to be joining the CRUK Beatson Institute. This place offers an amazing blend of expertise, resources and friendly, collaborative environment that it's fantastic to become a part of'
The Institute of Cancer Science’s Dr Julia Cordero has been awarded a Cancer Research UK Pioneer Award. These awards fund innovative, higher-risk ideas that could revolutionise our understanding of cancer.
Julia’s project will use fruit flies as a model system to study cancer-driven behavioural changes. These behavioural changes specifically relate to sleep disturbances and changes in feeding/eating habits. Disturbances to both of these are often experienced by cancer patients.
This is something that needs to be addressed, not only because these issues greatly affect a person’s quality of life, but also because these disturbances can actually affect how well the tumour responds to treatment and therefore how successful the cancer treatment is. So the potential benefit of addressing these behavioural changes is two-pronged: improving quality of life by improving sleep and nutrition, but also improving the chance of successful treatment.
‘There have been a lot of correlational studies on this, but as of now there is very little science,’ Julia said. This is where Julia’s Pioneer Award project steps in. The project aims to dig down into the specific molecular mechanisms underlying how intestinal tumours affect sleeping and eating behaviours.
It is already known that the intestine controls cellular signalling pathways that affect other parts of the body, including the brain. This project will look into how they do this and how this leads to changes in sleeping and eating. The hypothesis is that tumours actively influence brain function.
The ultimate goal of the work is to develop therapies specifically aimed at addressing these sleeping and eating disturbances in cancer patients. Such therapies might include small molecules or peptides, some of which are already in use for other conditions.
Beatson Institute researchers have unravelled a new way to maximise the production of important cancer-related proteins for study in the laboratory. This work, led by Dr Chris Gray of the Institute’s Drug Discovery Programme, has demonstrated that subtle changes to the genetic instructions given to bacterial protein factories can dramatically improve the recovery of high-quality proteins.
The work has been published in PLoS One.
These findings refine and optimise current recombinant technologies, used globally for the production of proteins for the laboratory and the clinic. As a consequence of this discovery, larger amounts of key reagents can be delivered to our drug discovery programmes, accelerating the development of new therapies.
Click here to read more about the Drug Discovery Programme.
The Beatson Institute is very pleased to welcome Dr Ed Roberts as a new Junior Group Leader. Ed joins the Institute from UCSF, where he studied a class of immune cell called migratory dendritic cells and the role they play in the body’s response to cancer, and specifically how these cells communicate with the lymph nodes.
This immune response underpins a type of cancer treatment called immunotherapy, in which the body’s own immune system is used to fight cancer. Despite great successes with immunotherapy, it only works in a subset of patients. Ed’s group here at the Beatson will be investigating how the immune response could be boosted, with the aim of making immunotherapy successful for more patients.
Ed has said 'It’s been really great settling into an incredibly friendly and collaborative environment that has such exciting science going on. Everyone has been incredibly helpful with everything which has made the process of moving in much less painful than I had expected!'