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"I’m a childhood cancer survivor"

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"I’m a childhood cancer survivor"

Dr Victoria Forster was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of seven. It was an experience that inspired her doctoral study at Newcastle and her current role at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Newcastle University alumnus Dr Victoria Forster always knew she wanted to be a scientist – a physicist maybe or, following in her father’s footsteps, an engineer.

But a diagnosis of leukaemia at the age of seven shifted her focus, eventually leading to a career in cancer research.

“I spent so much time in hospital and was always asking questions like, ‘Why do I need that type of blood?’ and ‘What is that drug going to do to me?’,” she says.

“When I got back to school, my interest was definitely in biology, chemistry and medicine.”

Dr Forster has chronicled her time working with children diagnosed with cancer.

After completing a broad biomedical sciences degree, she heard about a leukaemia research group being formed at Newcastle University.

“Newcastle was known as one of the more active research universities in the area of biomedical science and I’d had a bit of exposure to Newcastle researchers already,” she says. “I also love the North East of England and was interested in staying in the area.”

She applied for a PhD post with the group.

“I really liked the environment at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research and was inspired by the fact that the project was new, which gave me a lot of creative freedom,” she says.

Victoria studied acute myeloid leukaemia (AML), which has a worse prognosis than other forms of the disease.

“My job was to figure out why the genetic problems in AML cause leukaemia,” she says. “I worked on something called a fusion protein, where two genes that shouldn’t be joined get stuck together. Because of that, they don’t function how they should separately.

"I found the fusion protein caused problems all around the cell – one of the main problems was reducing the ability of the cell to repair its DNA, which unfortunately leads to the cancer happening and being really aggressive.”

Making headlines

During her PhD, Victoria, an early adopter of Twitter, began to share updates from the lab and gained an interested following.

“I thought people should know where their money was going and we should put more of a public face on scientists,” she says.

As a survivor who’s had all these treatments, I really am aware of how much we need to research these side effects and come up with better treatments.

Dr Victoria Forster

A fellowship at The Times in 2014 allowed her to expand this aspect of her work.

She’s since written for The Guardian, has done a TED talk on cancer survivorship and is now a regular Forbes contributor.

“Bad, irresponsible news travels so much faster and further than well-written stuff,” she says.

“[So] it’s great when scientists communicate their research and know how to talk about their work in appropriate terms.”

Personal work

After her PhD, Victoria remained at Newcastle as a postdoctoral research associate and worked on a study directly inspired by her childhood illness.

Part of Victoria’s leukaemia treatment involved the drug methotrexate, which can cause a side effect called ‘stroke-like syndrome’. She wanted to work out how and why this happens – the first step towards preventing it in future.

Working with Dr Frederik van Delft and Dr Jane Carr-Wilkinson, Victoria grew nerve cells out of stem cells, then ran tests to see what the drug did to them.

“I’m really passionate about what happens to cancer survivors after they’re treated successfully,” she says.

“We know there’s a lot of toxicity with treatments and that people, even 30 years down the line, will have side effects that we’re only just learning are related to what they went through.

"As a survivor who’s had all these treatments, I really am aware of how much we need to research these side effects and come up with better treatments.”

I’m very much of the opinion that it’s best to work together in science, especially when we’re doing things like improving the lives of people with cancer.

Dr Victoria Forster

Working in Canada

Victoria heard about an organisation in Canada doing similar work – The Hospital for Sick Children, known as SickKids, in Toronto.

She secured funding for a short research visit in 2016, and in 2017 moved to the city for a full-time post-doctoral fellowship to study a rare genetic disease called CMMRD – “the most aggressive cancer predisposition syndrome in the world”.

Children born with this condition accumulate lots of DNA faults in their genome at a much faster rate than the average person.

“All cancers are because of DNA mutations, but normally… DNA faults accumulate in our genome over many years,” Victoria explains. “In learning about these children, we learn about the process for all cancers, but a lot quicker.”

Victoria’s work in Toronto continues, but she’ll always have a strong international outlook.

She says: “I’m very much of the opinion that it’s best to work together in science, especially when we’re doing things like improving the lives of people with cancer.”