Smells Like Teen Spirit

Significant breakthroughs are being made by researchers at the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre thanks to the spirit of support and collaboration.

 Professor Margaret Frame
Professor Margaret Frame

When I congratulate Professor Margaret Frame on being given the Chancellor’s Award for Research, I sense her wince. She received the accolade from The Princess Royal, Chancellor of the University, at a recent gala dinner in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in recognition of her achievements as Director of the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre. But the idea she should be singled out for her “innovation, relevance, creativity and personal dedication” only makes her embarrassed.

You could put this down to modesty but it’s also because the true strength of the University of Edinburgh’s work lies in its team effort. She knows the reason the organisation is a world leader in cancer research is that it is collaborative and cross-disciplinary.

Look at the range of her collaborators and you’ll see she’s not exaggerating. The Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre draws on the skills of engineers, chemists, mathematicians, statisticians and physicists, as well as experts in microscopy, biothematics and laser optics. Working with clinical director Professor David Cameron, Professor Frame maintains a direct connection between the science of cancer and its clinical treatment. “The key thing is to have interpersonal relationships where you all want to solve a bigger problem,” she says. “You can educate each other.”

It’s this kind of teamwork at which Edinburgh excels. Being successful in today’s world means being multi-disciplinary. “The next big breakthroughs will come from technological advances,” she says. “It won’t be cancer researchers or cancer doctors who provide it, it will be people in other disciplines. Multidisciplinary teams bring different things to the problem and Edinburgh is extremely good at that.”

Multidisciplinary teams bring different things to the problem and Edinburgh is extremely good at that.

Professor Margaret Frame

The results speak for themselves. Professor Frame’s colleagues have made headway in improving treatment for people with breast cancer, using aspirin to reduce the risk of bowel cancer and developing ways of tackling the most common type of brain tumour. Here in Edinburgh, they have pioneered a more precise form of chemotherapy to treat tumours, conducted the clinical trial that paved the way for the introduction of the breast cancer drug lapatinib and discovered two molecules that help destroy cancer cells.

“One of my colleagues, Professor Charlie Gourley, discovered that many people had particular mutations running in their families,” says Frame. “Now there is a treatment for these people that there wasn’t before. That’s been an important Edinburgh-led piece of clinical observational science.”

Responsible for two large research teams, Professor Frame has a personal interest in molecular biology and is investigating the role played by particular genes and proteins in causing cancer. “We’re trying to figure out the mechanisms by which these proteins work and then how to inhibit their activity so as to stop cancer cells in their tracks,” she says. “Every group has unique aspects: for example, we’re innovating imaging technologies to visualise cancer processes deep in cancer tissue.”

It takes creativity from teams, and multiple teams, working on a shared goal which is to eradicate cancer.

Professor Margaret Frame
Science Director of the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre

None of this comes cheap. Professor Frame’s work depends on the support of Cancer Research UK and the European Research Council, both of which provide over £2m, as well as many other charitable donations. “Without funding, we wouldn’t be doing cancer research,” she says. “We’ve got to the point where one in two people diagnosed with cancer now survive. Thirty-five years on from when I started cancer research, twice as many people survive. There’s a huge change in the statistics and that is all down to research.”

She believes we are on the cusp of a new era of cancer treatment that will focus on personalised medicine. Within 20 or 30 years, she foresees each patient having their tumour genetically profiled and their treatment decided accordingly. Although such breakthroughs are measured in decades rather than years, it’s work that gives Professor Frame tremendous satisfaction. “It’s the most rewarding job in the world,” she says. “Nothing is ever boring. You’ve got a chance of knowing something about an important disease before anyone else does. It’s fascinating and inspiring. And in Edinburgh, the people are co-operative, friendly and want to do it.”