60 seconds with Monica Olcina
Monica Olcina is a Group Leader in Immune Radiation Biology. In this 60 seconds with..., Monica lays out the importance of constantly evolving radiotherapeutic techniques, as well as what has changed in the Department since she studied here!
Tell us about your research
I am very interested in understanding how tumours exploit innate immune pathways to their advantage, and studying how we can target these pathways to improve radiotherapy. We have found that following radiotherapy, the complement system, an innate immune pathway, affects the survival of cancer cells themselves, and regulates how the immune system responds to the cancer. We aim to understand these responses, including how activation of different innate immune pathways is coordinated following radiotherapy. I am also interested in investigating the potential of innate immune proteins for early detection and as prognostic biomarkers.
What are the challenges involved in your area of research?
In the clinic, radiotherapy treatment planning must balance maximising the dose delivered for efficient killing of the tumour cells while minimising the dose delivered to adjacent normal tissues. However, preclinically it is often difficult to find good models to test the radiation response of both tumours and normal tissues simultaneously. Better models of normal tissue and tumour radiation responses, which closely recapitulate the challenges faced in the clinic, would allow us to have a greater impact and a higher chance of translating our preclinical findings into successful treatments.
Why does your research matter?
Radiotherapy can be highly effective, but the dose given, and even the tumour types which can be treated with radiotherapy, is often limited by damage to healthy tissue. Our research to date indicates that members of the complement system are good targets for increasing the therapeutic window for radiotherapy. There are a number of experimental drugs and ´tool´ compounds targeting the complement cascade, which we hope to use to accelerate the translation of our findings into improved treatments.
This is not your first time in the Department! Tell us what has changed since you undertook your studies.
A lot has changed since I was last here (besides all the pandemic related changes - which I hope will be somewhat transient)! One of the differences that I have noticed and that is very exciting for me is the focus on three themes in the Department, namely DNA Damage Response, Tumour Microenvironment and Immunology. I feel that my research is very well aligned with these three themes and I look forward to working together with other groups in the Department to make advances in those three areas.
How did you get to where you are in your career? What input/support from others have you particularly valued?
I have been extremely fortunate to have encountered excellent mentors in my academic path - even when I was in school! I really value how, in their own way, all my mentors took the time to understand what was important to me and did their best to help me achieve those goals. I am extremely grateful for their support and hope I will be able to do the same for anyone that seeks my mentorship!
What are the bigger questions in your field? How do you see your field developing in the next ten years? What are the obstacles to getting there?
At the moment radiotherapy is particularly effective for treating localised tumours. If we were able to improve early detection methods, allowing us to catch most cancers when they are still at a localised/early stage we might be able treat and cure a broader range of patients with radiotherapy (and other treatments). As cancer cure rates continue to improve and more and more patients have long-term survival post-cancer, it will be particularly important to minimise the side effects as well as manage long-term complications associated with cancer treatments. The ultimate goal is both to cure cancer and also ensure the best possible patient quality of life post-cancer. Once again, we need to identify and develop better models that recapitulate these different aspects of human disease so that we can identify more reliable markers for use in early cancer detection as well as ways to increase the therapeutic window of cancer treatments such as radiotherapy.