6th March 2020

Behind the Scenes: Research Laboratory

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The Liverpool Lung Project is a visionary research programme. It was one of the very first projects set up to investigate people at risk of getting lung cancer – most previous research had focused on people who already had the disease.

To find out more, for the third and final National Careers Week interview, we visited the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation research laboratory at the University of Liverpool. We caught up with Senior Research Fellow, Dr. Mike Davies, who told us about his lung cancer research projects and what motivates him:

“I am a researcher, first and foremost. I have been working on the Liverpool Lung Project and Roy Castle Lung Cancer Research Programme for nine years. I also manage the Liverpool Lung Project biobank samples and data – and more recently, samples and data from lung cancer screening.

We realised that early detection really is going to save lives and, to look at early detection, you need to compare people with and without lung cancer. We do this by collecting samples (e.g. blood and sputum) from people to analyse and compare over a long period of time. We then follow them up to determine whether they develop lung cancer.

We use these samples, together with data given to us through questionnaires, to determine who is at the highest risk of lung cancer.

Risk scoring has been one of the major outputs from the Liverpool Lung Project. It allows us to target new interventions that have come along, such as low dose CT screening, both in the UKLS clinical trial and as part of lung health checks. We are proud that Liverpool was an early adopter of lung health checks and that Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation has funded them in Nottingham.  

The Liverpool Lung Project risk scoring will also be part of the larger NHS funded targeted lung health checks, to determine who are most at risk and therefore should be screened to try to detect lung cancer early.”

Mike outlined his career to date:

“I gained a Biochemistry degree; during which I took a year out in industry in a pharmaceutical company. It brought it home to me that I wanted to work up front, at the bench in the lab, working on something that will create an impact. I gained my PhD from University of Liverpool, and that is where I started to want to understand about cancer.

Challenging attitudes

I originally started out in breast cancer research and in 2011, I had the opportunity to join the Liverpool Lung Project, led by Professor John Field.

When I told people that I was going to study lung cancer, I got the feel for the challenging attitudes surrounding lung cancer. Often people would say ‘just tell them to stop smoking’.

To me, challenging these attitudes is part of our job here as research scientists, we work to get people to realise that lung cancer is a disease. It’s horrible, but it is no one’s fault. If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. People who smoke are at a higher risk but, people who don’t smoke can get it.

As a research scientist, my job is to try to understand an awful lot more about lung cancer, who it affects, and how we can treat it. The earlier you detect it, the more treatment options you have.

My role gives me the best of both worlds. I have an involvement in managing the Biobank and data, ensuring the samples are used by the best researchers around. I’m also able to do work myself at the bench, looking at the samples and how we can use them together with the data.

A real community

One of the best things about working with Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation is how closely we work. I get to interact with people on lab tours – whether that’s supporters, people who are living with lung cancer or people who have been successfully treated for lung cancer. It’s a real community. Supporters go out of their way every day to fund the work that we do, it is thanks to them that the Liverpool Lung Project and Roy Castle Lung Cancer Research Programme have been funded.

The commitment from the people of Merseyside allowed us to build up the Biobank to what it is today. Over time, we will study these samples and get closer to our long-term goal of catching lung cancer early enough to give people the best chance in life.

When people are given that chance of life, whether having targeted therapies to stop the disease growing or having curative treatments through early detection, they really make the most of it. We want to give people the chance to survive, and that really drives us on.”