Having previously worked at the MVCC during her first year as an oncology registrar (she already has a biomedical science degree, a Master’s degree in Cancer Therapeutics and a medical degree with a specialization in oncology!), Zena was impressed by the volume of research and clinical trials offered to the patients. “The healthcare teams are devoted to prioritizing patient care and ensuring that patients have access to the best treatments available, including several clinical trials.” She decided to apply for a PhD studentship at the MVCC, spurred on by her desire to be in an environment that encouraged learning and research in order to broaden her knowledge and develop a better understanding of the behaviour of cancer. “The healthcare teams are also very knowledgeable, with many of the professors being leading experts in their field.”
“The healthcare teams are devoted to prioritizing patient care and ensuring that patients have access to the best treatments available, including several clinical trials.”
Zena’s studies focus on ovarian cancer. In particular, she and her team are looking at ways to assess how tumours respond to treatment, and whether these methods can be improved. One emerging technique involves taking blood samples from patients undergoing treatment and looking for cancer cells that have been shed by the tumour into the bloodstream — so-called circulating tumour cells. This ‘liquid biopsy’ approach, which offers many advantages over the traditional solid biopsy technique, can be used to try to gain more information about how cancer cells behave over the course of treatment — in particular, whether changes in the number of circulating tumour cells correlate with treatment response or disease progression.
Getting to know patients in the MVCC gynae-oncology clinic and following their progress over the course of treatment is one of the parts of her PhD that Zena enjoys the most. “We can see how patients are responding to treatment from a clinical point of view and then correlate this at a cellular level with the blood samples obtained.” By contrast, one of the most challenging parts of Zena’s PhD has been to find the best method of presenting data obtained from her time in the lab in a way that is easy for others to understand and interpret.