2 February, 2023

We caught up with Dr James Thorne, Associate Professor of Nutrition, Epigenetics, and Cancer at the University of Leeds. He is one of our past research grant recipients. Under his supervision, his PhD student Alex Websdale investigated the role of oxysterols in breast cancer.

Q: Firstly, have you always wanted to be a scientist and what inspired you to become one?

Dr James Thorne A: Science was always exciting at school. After A-levels, a science degree was a natural choice. I found a great programme (Genetics) at a great university (Queen Mary University). In the final year of my research project, our research supervisor (Prof Richard Nichols) took us to the Alps to measure the progress of a speciation war between two species of grasshopper that were battling for control of the top of a hill. I was hooked.

My Master’s degree at University College London (UCL) was just as interesting. My project supervisor (Prof Alireza Fazeli) helped me investigate how gene expression in fallopian tubes is regulated. Getting a PhD position though wasn’t straightforward. I nearly ended up as a salesperson. I was called up and offered a scholarship for a PhD at Imperial College London whilst on my lunch break working at a shoe shop!

Q: You have been involved in breast cancer research for some time, why this field of research?

Dr James Thorne A: The molecular biology of cancer is fascinating. There are so many pathways that are normally meant to function in other cells and tissues, or at different stages of development. If the cancer cell can switch them on or off to create a selective advantage, then it will. For me, breast cancer is interesting because of the way fats and vitamins cause cancer cells to behave differently.

Q: Let’s talk about the BCUK-funded research project you recently completed. In simple language what was the major finding of your work?

Dr James Thorne A: The breakdown of cholesterol in our bodies generates compounds known as oxysterols, some of which are found in triple-negative breast tumours. We identified a possible mechanism by which these compounds may result in chemotherapy drugs being ineffective

Q: The aims of your research are to uncover how nutrition and diet can alter the risk of developing cancer. Let’s talk about breast cancer. Why is nutrition such an important part of breast cancer prevention?

Dr James Thorne A: Around 30% of breast cancers can be prevented, that’s a lot. Dietary factors are a major contributor to this prevention – but seeing as we still don’t know the mechanisms of how food alters cancer risk, there is still lots to be done. Nutrition is also really important for patients and survivors of breast cancer, better outcomes, fewer side effects, and quicker recovery are all associated with good nutrition.

Q: There are supposedly many foods that help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. What findings have you made here? Are there foods that promote or inhibit breast cancer?

Dr James Thorne A: No, I do not believe in the ‘superfood’ ideas that have flooded the internet in recent years, and we have not made any findings in this context. The evidence that any single food item prevents cancer is weak at best, and at worst, people following such guidance may neglect to consider that a balanced healthy diet – a diet high in fibre, fruit, vegetables, and pulses, and low in saturated fat, processed meat, and sugar – is where the strongest evidence exists for cancer prevention.

Q: What are you working on right now?

Dr James Thorne A: Following the results of our research funding by BCUK, our group has recently started a new project funded by the World Cancer Research Fund/International. We are looking at a wide range of nutritional and dietary factors in triple-negative breast cancer patients to determine whether they alter the response of the tumour to chemotherapy. The study involves a collaboration with Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust and the University of North Carolina – all very exciting. We also continue to work on the molecular and cell biology of how nutrients enter cells, interact with the cell membrane, and control the activity of genes inside breast cancer cells.

Q: What advice would you give to young people who want to become scientists?

Dr James Thorne A: Be prepared to fail. I have had dozens of rejections, from job applications, to grant proposals and paper submissions. It can be hard, but with each failure and rejection, you learn something valuable. The sum of those rejections is what makes you succeed in the end.

Be flexible. The career you are imagining probably doesn’t exist. Scientists often have to compromise, especially early on in their careers. Do you have to stay in a particular country or city? If so, you may not research in the subject area of your dreams. Are you solely focused on how vitamin D can bind to the vitamin D nuclear receptor? – Then you need to be flexible on where you live (or come to Leeds!).

Find a good mentor, and don’t run from bad leaders. Someone who is generous with their time and sees the joy in watching junior people develop and progress will open doors for you and will commit their time to training you in hard skills that are essential for your career development. You can also learn a huge amount from a bad leader. Learn how your words can have an impact and how they affect others, and learn how people can be motivated to work. Learn from the supportive people around you and learn from the difficult ones too. Always keep learning!

Q: What scientist living or dead do you most admire? 

Dr James Thorne A: Dr Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) discovered how to manufacture a plant sterol that I work on. This led to a revolution in the pharmaceutical industry. But the reason I admire him is his resilience. He was refused entry into several Universities, blocked at many points in his career, and even denied a professorship because he was a black man trying to enter and progress through the scientific world. He just didn’t give up when he made it into the academic arena. Dr Percy Lavon Julian was a constant pain to the faculty that had refused him access previously. Dr Julian invented a way of reducing the cost of developing drugs. He sold his company in 1961 for over $2 million to the organisation that became Glaxo-Smith-Kline.

Dr Julian’s children grew up to be active in the civil rights movement. As a white man with a middle-class upbringing, with doors opening easily for me, I think it has been important that I have had to, and continue, to try hard to understand the barriers that others have faced.

There are few people I admire, more than a scientist, who has not only had to battle the rigours and failures inherent in scientific research but also overcome the massive cultural barriers that still exist for many researchers in the world today.

Q: What do you like to do when you are not working? 

Dr James Thorne A: I love to absolutely hammer my two boys (ages 10 and 13) at Mario Kart, FIFA, and Rocket League. They both think they are amazing, but they still have a lot to learn. I really enjoy cooking hot curries with homegrown chillies, or a nice BBQ with picanha in the summer, or making some mediocre attempts at proper pasta dishes. I love learning new recipes and using the herbs and spices I’ve grown myself. I’ve also failed to run a marathon several times, but I am still learning…

To find out more about the research investigating the role of oxysterols in breast cancer read our two interviews with James’ PhD student Alex Websdale: Meet the scientist with Alex Websdale and the End of studentship interview with Alex Websdale.

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