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Dan Hughes is a Clinical Research Training Fellow in Eric O’Neill’s lab.

Here, Dan talks to us about creating pancreatic cancer avatars, how the aim for pancreatic cancer treatment would be to move towards a more personalised treatment strategy and discusses the interlink between clinical work and research.

What’s the focus of your research? Have you encountered any challenges so far?

 My current research focuses on establishing a novel system to keep pancreatic tumour alive following surgical resection. I have been creating patient derived pancreatic cancer avatars. Maintaining tumour viability in the ex-vivo setting provides a unique opportunity to study both the tumour and associated microenvironment in detail. It also serves as a platform where a drug screen can be undertaken in order to evaluate the tumour’s responsiveness to chemotherapy. I am particularly interested in whether perfusion culture creates a physiologically representative condition and whether long term culture of pancreatic tumour in the ex-vivo setting can be achieved. I have encountered a few challenges since starting the research. The main issues have been preventing contamination of the tumour and determining the optimal media conditions to prevent autodigestion and to facilitate long term culture

What are the implications of your research?

 During pancreatic cancer tumorigenesis, it is suspected that there is early dissemination of the tumour with subsequent micro-metastases formation. Currently, chemotherapy serves as the only opportunity to gain systemic control of the disease. Several clinical trials have demonstrated a clear survival benefit with chemotherapy, however there is a significant variation in patients’ response rates. In current clinical practice, the patient’s performance status (level of fitness) dictates which chemotherapy is utilised in the adjuvant setting. By establishing a system to keep pancreatic tumour alive in the ex-vivo setting, a high throughput drug screen can be performed in order to identify to which chemotherapeutic drugs the tumour is most sensitive to. Such an approach would allow a precise, tailored and personalised treatment strategy for each patient. The aim would be to move away from the concept of a set chemotherapy regime for all patients, to selecting specific therapies based on the individual’s own tumour biology.

 Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ day for you?

 Each day is very different. My time is spent between analysing data, reviewing new literature and undertaking different experiments. On the days where there is a scheduled pancreatic surgery, I work very closely with the clinical and biobank team in order to ensure that there is a streamlined process in order to minimise any time delay between tumour resection and subsequent culture in the perfusion system

 Tell us about your career path so far…

 I completed my undergraduate medical training in Cardiff University.  During this time my grandfather passed away from pancreatic cancer, this drove me to gain a further understanding about the disease and has influenced my clinical interests. I completed my basic surgical training in Bristol, prior to being awarded my national training number in General Surgery in Thames Valley Deanery in 2017. I have had several excellent mentors over the years and I am grateful for their advice and guidance

  Your role involves both clinical and research aspects. How do you make these aspects work together?

 Whilst these two aspects may seem separate, I believe that they are firmly interlinked. This serves as the basis of translational research. Identifying problems or trends in clinical practice can stimulate questions, that can be answered in the laboratory with well-designed experiments and robust hypothesis testing.

 What do you do to relax?

I enjoy playing the guitar, reading and hiking

  What’s the one thing you cannot start your day without?

A large coffee!