‘Much is still not understood about pancreatic cancer’

4 Oct 2022

Taylor-Jade Allen. Image: SSPC

Spurred on by a personal experience, Taylor-Jade Allen is working to better understand pancreatic cancer in the hope of developing new treatments.

Taylor-Jade Allen completed her bachelor’s degree at University College Dublin in 2018, with a focus on genetics. She is now a PhD student based in the National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology at Dublin City University (DCU).

Funded by SSPC, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals, she is currently in her third year researching pancreatic cancer disease development and treatment options.

‘I had personal experience with the disease when a family member was diagnosed … It was at that time I decided I wanted to carry out my PhD research in this area’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I am part of Dr Finbarr O’Sullivan’s research group based in the National Institute of Cellular Biotechnology on the DCU campus. The group is made up of researchers with varying interests ranging from corneal diseases to the role zinc plays in wound healing, but we all link together through our interest of cellular models and tissue engineering.

My current research focuses on two main aspects of pancreatic cancer. The first is trying to better understand drug interactions of combination chemotherapy regimens, and the second is investigating small non-coding RNAs known as miRNAs to better understand disease development and their possible use as biomarkers.

The chemotherapy-related aspect of my project really developed during lockdown as I was not able to physically attend the lab due to Covid. I had acquired a good chunk of data during the first few months of my research that needed further analysis. I started to think how I could best use my time. I started to learn some bioinformatics skills and I was really enjoying it, so I got in touch with a collaborator in the University at Buffalo, New York, and learnt how to carry out pharmacodynamic modelling on my drug combination data.

Pancreatic cancer has a five-year survival rate of less than 10pc. During the final year of my undergraduate, we had many lectures on disease models of pancreatic cancer and I always found them interesting. Another aspect that really sparked my curiosity initially was how the outcomes for patients and the development of effective treatments had not greatly improved over the last 40 years.

Then I had personal experience with the disease when a family member was diagnosed in the summer of 2018 and shortly passed that November. It was at that time I decided I wanted to carry out my PhD research in this area.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

I think the importance of research has truly come to light during the last few years experiencing a global pandemic. What that experience highlighted was also the importance of a collaborative mindset within research as we are much more powerful if we work together.

The importance of continued research into diseases such as pancreatic cancer – where much is still not understood about disease development and how to improve early detection and treatment – is really highlighted in the clinic where the average survival time from diagnosis is less than six months.

The impact of research is evident in many diseases and cancers such as breast cancer, where the 10-year survival rate has increased to approximately 85pc and there are constantly new and very effective treatment options becoming available.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

When I was in my Junior Cert year of school, I had a fantastic science teacher who encouraged us to ask lots of questions and to think outside of the curriculum and exams.

From there, I became interested in human biology and genetics. I knew from an early stage that cancer research was the field I found most interesting and satisfied my desire to conduct purposeful work that will make a difference.

Throughout my studies I became aware of the disheartening statistics for individuals and their family members faced with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. From that point on, I was determined in dedicating my future scientific career to better understanding this disease.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

I would say one of the biggest challenges for researchers is a lack of funding. For example, pancreatic cancer research receives only 2pc of funds distributed by the National Cancer Institute. This puts a block on how quickly science can progress in helping improve patient outcome.

A misconception for researchers in general, not just in my field, is that scientists spend a lot of time alone in the lab. But the reality is very different. We have weekly meetings, we are continuously supporting one another within the centre and sharing our individual expertise, and travelling to conferences to share our work with researchers all over the world and getting their insight on how to improve the science.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Yes, I think it has changed – and that is an excellent thing! Recently, good science communication was a focal point in society when it came to the constant news of Covid-19 variants and vaccine education.

The pandemic also brought many scientists into the public eye, which is how it should always be – where scientific information is coming directly from the source, reducing confusion and breaking down misconceptions people may have about a certain topic of science.

I am funded by SSPC, where they put an emphasis on the importance of science communication and public outreach. I encourage engagement by constantly putting out information about pancreatic cancer and the work I do in terms that are easy to understand for everyone, including young school children or people with no science background.

That is the key – not everyone has to be an expert in pancreatic cancer to have the right to information about the disease that is both helpful and accessible.

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