What are your academic interests, what do you do?
My research mainly focuses on the metastasis of cancer. This is mainly breast cancer and the job of our team is to analyse cancer cells found at various stages in the development of the cancer. We investigate the gene expression level and the level of specific proteins linked to a greater potential for metastasis in cancers. We create a molecular profile of the cells. The results we obtain in the laboratory are correlated with the experience of patients – their clinical and pathological data – to see if the molecular profile of the cancer cells could help in the prognosis of the disease.
What are the roots of your fascination with science?
I have always been interested in the natural sciences. Biology, chemistry and physics were always an interest and I educated myself in these disciplines outside school as well. I liked learning how things work or why results come out the way they do and I tried to find additional information myself, which is when I discovered real science. In school-books, the knowledge is given as an ultimate truth, but when you go deeper, this is not always the case. We still don’t know so much about the biological processes. I have always been fascinated with the human organism and I realised that biotechnology was the area I wanted to specialise in.
What is the purpose of your research, to create a new treatment or to perfect existing ones?
We specialise in the search for factors that will allow us a more effective range of therapies in breast cancer. We’re not looking for new medication but rather factors to indicate which patients are at the highest risk of relapse and then these patients will have to undergo more aggressive treatment. Patients who don’t have these indicators can be spared this treatment. For example, there’s no need to ‘torture’ them with chemotherapy. We can divide breast cancer research into two areas – the search for medication that could kill cancer cells or classifying patients according to existing medications (treatment schedule) in order to cure them more effectively and that’s what we do.
Breast cancer is something of a problem in Poland. How does the country rank compared to other European countries with regard to the incidence rate?
In Poland, about 17,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed annually. As for percentage of deaths, the figure is about 5,000 annually. If we look at the statistics in Poland and Western Europe, we have worse results for effective treatment, maybe because we have a limited budget in the fight against this cancer. Breast cancer is the most common cancer in Polish women. Early diagnosis is vital in the fight against this cancer – the sooner the cancer is discovered, the greater the chances of effective treatment, so we have to give credit to those who do the diagnostic work. The quicker cancer is discovered and as long as it is small, the less of a burden the treatment will be on the patient and the better the results.
You must be aware of Angelina Jolie, who decided to undergo a mastectomy due to the genetic likelihood of breast cancer. Is that a drastic step or a necessary one?
It’s a very good example and also shows that scientists have confirmed the link between mutations in genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 and breast cancer in families with the inherited form of the disease. In fact mutations in these genes do translate into a very high risk of the development of breast cancer and it would seem that in many cases, this is a good decision.
Is your team one of many laboratories in Europe working on this area or is it unique?
There is a lot of research going on into breast cancer. We concentrate on the circulating tumour cells, which are less common and we are working on a new method to analyse these cells once shed into the bloodstream, for example, from the primary tumour.
I consider the work on cancer as a very important field of science and I try not to limit myself to one area of research but to try to develop the areas around it. I have started to get interested in the early evolution of cancers, I was on placement in Germany where I worked on the analysis of the early spread of cancer. Now we know that the cells outside the primary tumour spread and can be different to those inside. I’d like to explore this mystery further. I plan to expand my research and apply for grants, so that I can use the techniques of molecular biology in the analysis of breast cancer.
What does a specialist in the fight against cancer do in her spare time?
I love reading, non-academic books as well, and devote a lot of free time to that. I also make little objects, like macramé bookmarks, which really relaxes me. I value being able to be creative in some other way, that I can create something different, new patterns. I also like to travel, and generally any contact with nature makes me happy.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski