On Our Travels: Putting it out there:-

An important part of scientific research is working with others and sharing your results with scientists in centres around the UK, Europe and the World. There is no point in carrying out expensive cancer research if you keep it all to yourself, and if it doesn’t pass the scrutiny of other scientists. Sometimes these meetings result in criticism, but more often a sense of working together to pool expertise is the result (collaboration). However, to publicise great results too soon, before you have carried out all the necessary experiments is also dangerous. It provides a sense of false hope to the very cancer patients we are seeking to help.

The ultimate scrutiny of quality in research is publication in one of the many scientific and medical journals, where 2 or 3 (sometimes up to 5) independent scientists pick through the research, trying to find faults. This refereeing process can be long (sometimes almost a year) and distressing – nobody wants to hear that the research they have worked so hard at is flawed – but ultimately a scientific paper is out there both in print and on the internet, for other scientists to read and perhaps use to improve their research.

Over the last couple of months, when not supervising our ‘gene clipping students’, several of the staff in the Cancer Research Unit have been doing just this; presenting and publishing our research all over the world. Two of our scientists: Dr Rob Seed and Dr Dominika Butler have just returned from the biggest Cancer Research meeting in the world: the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington DC. There they discussed the York research on Cancer Stem Cells with up to 15,000 other cancer research specialists. Such meetings are another chance to keep up to date with new trends, ideas and other scientists. When you reach my age you also meet many old friends and students: my usual problem is remembering who they all are!

Dr Fiona Frame and I both spoke at a cancer conference in Cardiff last month. This is a new collaborative network for prostate cancer, and involved scientists from Ireland, Italy, Wales and Yorkshire. We also took an extra day to catch up with some research we have been carrying out (with Cardiff) on a very experimental drug, which has potential to treat cancer stem cells. Apart from the nightmare of getting into and out of Cardiff by car, the conference was notable for the paranoia I generated in my opening address. One of our main skills in York is studying cancer from actual patients, rather than older laboratory models. After my lecture, every speaker apologised for using the older models – and promised to upgrade to the York standard. The only exception of course was Fiona, who described the elegance of our studies and showed (amongst other things) a movie, which illustrated the effects of chemotherapy in amazing detail. Fiona repeated this lecture in Belfast last week. Prostate Cancer UK are now going to use the movie on their web site!

Last week I had one of the tougher tasks for a scientist; a conference at the world-famous Pasteur Institute in Paris. I am very fond of the city, having worked there for a short period in the 1990s. However terrorism has changed the openness of the city: armed police and soldiers are very evident. This did not affect the conference, which examined the effects of Low Temperature Plasma on cancer cells (and in my case stem cells). It provided one of those collaborative moments, when a cancer surgeon from Germany whom I had never met showed a series of results, which dovetailed nicely with those I presented the very next day. The only difference was that he had studied treatment in patients, whereas we study treatment of patient cancers in the laboratory. A real justification for imposing 3 days in Paris on me!

We are all now firmly back in York and working hard at producing those scientific papers.

Prof N J Maitland

Director of The Cancer Research Unit

June 2017