Zena, the Super Scholar

Zena Alizzi is an oncology trainee working in the NHS, but has taken time out of her training to embark on a PhD at the Mount Vernon Cancer Centre (MVCC). Now in her fourth year, she’s also taken time out of her busy schedule to tell us about her work there.

AS photo of Zena in a lab

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.

Data collection was obviously massively negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic: patients had telephone consultations instead of face-to-face consultations and the lab was forced to shut for several months, which largely put paid to blood sample collection and processing. But there were some pandemic positives, too: the enforced time at home gave Zena the chance to sit down and write three papers and create two posters — one of which won first prize at the College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (CHMLS) Brunel University London virtual research conference!

It’s hard to imagine that Zena can fit anything else into her packed days but when she’s not in the lab she can often be found in the gym! Slowing down the pace a little, she also enjoys listening to music, taking part in general cultural activities, trying different food cuisines and spending time with loved ones. When she’s completed her PhD, Zena has another two years of oncology training to complete, after which she will return to working full time for the NHS. We wish her well in her endeavours!

Collected blood samples organised in a rack