Dear Cancer – Dr Vicky Forster’s story

Posted by admin on July 1, 2014

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Dr Vicky Forster

Dr Vicky Forster

A social media post made by Dr Vicky Forster attracted world-wide attention to her work at Newcastle University’s Northern Institute for Cancer Research (NICR). We find out how she shot to Twitter stardom and how the Future Fund will support her work and that of her colleagues.

Upon completing a PhD, Dr Vicky Forster posted a celebratory message on Twitter which would bring her both national and international attention. Having survived cancer herself at a young age, Vicky’s message sent a stark warning to the disease – she had beaten it as a child and now she was qualified to join the fight to eradicate it.

After an evening celebrating the completion of her PhD, she arrived home late and sat down at her computer to chat online with friends. At the time, the topic ‘Dear Cancer’ was trending on the social networking site Twitter. Although hesitant at first, after some encouragement Vicky decided to send a message about her own experience. “I sent a tweet saying, ‘Dear Cancer, I beat you aged eight and now I’ve got a PhD in cancer research’,” remembers Vicky. “I went to sleep and didn’t think anything of it.”In the morning, Vicky awoke to find her tweet being rapidly retweeted and shared around the globe. “I was getting a message literally every 10 seconds from people all around the world. I understand it’s now at 14,000 retweets and has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Portuguese!”

International media

Local, national and international media interest soon followed, many offering payment for an interview. Vicky declined most of these offers, explaining, “I didn’t want to make any money out of it. I just wanted some awareness and publicity for the University and for our research.”

Since completing her studies, Vicky has worked as a research associate at NICR, a multidisciplinary research institute which is home to over 200 clinicians and scientists and has produced world-leading research over the past decade. The NICR hosts one of the leading research groups in children’s cancer and leukaemia in Europe and is partnered with a comprehensive clinical programme at the Great North Children’s Hospital (GNCH).

The NICR and GNCH have a strong track record in the fields of drug development, translational research and early phase clinical trials and the Future Fund will make possible their plans, and that of charity partner North of England Children’s Cancer Research, to create a dedicated childhood cancer research facility at Newcastle University.

Passionate supporter

The Newcastle University Centre for Childhood Cancer will provide state-of-the-art resources to ensure advances continue to be made in children’s cancer research, and ultimately give more children a future to look forward to – an ambition Vicky passionately supports.

“When I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in 1994 the survival rate was 65 per cent and now it’s 90 per cent,” she explains. “This is great, but it’s two-and-a-half to three years of constant treatment. It’s curable but it’s hard; it’s horrendous not on only the children themselves, but the family too. And of course, one in ten children still don’t survive it. There is still a tremendous amount of research that needs to be done into childhood leukaemia – we’ve got to improve things.”

Although active with a variety of projects, Vicky’s own work primarily focuses on leukaemia research.

“My research mainly looks at why people get leukaemia in the first place, essentially why the DNA of cells mutate and why that has a knock-on effect and causes leukaemia. I work on quite a few different types of leukaemia caused by different DNA mutations,” Vicky says.

“I’m also looking at why a certain type of DNA mutation might make some patients more sensitive to certain types of drug. If we find that out, we can identify them and possibly modify their treatment to better suit them. We are also hoping to look at why some childhood leukaemia patients get really bad heart problems after a really common chemotherapy drug. We think we know the problems in their DNA that actually cause that, so we might be able to warn their doctors.

“It’s great working at the NICR. There are so many people working on so many different types of cancer. There are a range of diverse experts and it’s a really good team. It’s quite incredible the amount of specialities we have here. One of the most important things to remember about cancer is it’s not one disease. There are around 200 different types and they’re all completely different. Even adult and childhood cancer is very different in many ways.”

Targeted therapies

Vicky says it comes as a surprise to many people that, for the most part, chemotherapy drugs have not changed greatly in recent years. “Most of the drugs for childhood leukaemia are the same ones we were using 30 years ago,” explains Vicky. “We’re just using them more cleverly now. Ideally, we want more targeted therapies, which only attack cancerous cells, not healthy ones.”

Vicky, originally from Chelmsford in Essex, herself has always been scientifically minded. “I knew I wanted to do science as a career, but I didn’t know whether I wanted to do research or work in industry,” she recalls. However, it was only after completing a summer lab-based project that Vicky made the decision to undertake a PhD. Around the same time, she also made up her mind to come to Newcastle. “I was attracted by Newcastle’s reputation, it’s a very good research university,” she adds.

Vicky’s scientific thinking was arguably nurtured to an extent while receiving her cancer treatment as a child. “I’ve always been a bit nocturnal; I used to sit in the nurses’ station with the nurses. I remember going to theatre for injections and operations, waking up and wanting to talk to the intensive care nurses,” remembers Vicky. “I think they got fed up after a while and probably wanted to give me more gas!”

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