22 March, 2023

As part of our interview series, Meet the Scientists, we caught up with our BCUK-funded PhD student Katharina Kusserow, from the University of Aberdeen, who started her project in February 2023. Professor Val Speirs supervises Katharina’s research, and her research examines the effects of bisphenol A (BPA) on breast cancer development.

Q: Why have you chosen to enter the field of scientific research, and what in particular drew you to breast cancer research?

Becoming a scientist has always been my dream, as I always enjoyed science classes at school the most. Biology was my favourite class, and my teacher really inspired me throughout my time at school. Also, my parents are scientists, so the fascination with research runs in the family.  This led me to do my undergraduate biology degree, where Val gave me a few lectures on breast cancer. It fascinated me a lot, so I decided to learn more about the topic. I learnt that the incidence of breast cancer is rising, and I wanted to help understand why and whether there are measures that could help prevent breast cancer.

Q: In your own words: Could you tell us what your PhD project is about? 

My project will investigate the effect BPA has on the non-cancerous breast (also known as the mammary gland) and how it potentially contributes to breast cancer development. Breast cancer is often influenced by exposure to oestrogen. BPA has been found to be an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC) due to its weak oestrogen-mimicking activity. Thus, concern has been raised that BPA (as well as other chemicals that can copy the actions of oestrogen) may influence hormone-sensitive organs like the breast and increase breast cancer risk.

BPA is a chemical compound widely used to produce polycarbonate plastics, manufacture food containers, plastic bottles and sports equipment and epoxy resins, and line the inside of tin cans and in various adhesives. Even though BPA concentrations in plastics are relatively low, the use of BPA in these products due to its potential to leach into food and drinks may pose some risk to human health. My project aims to assess if exposure to low levels of BPA can definitively be linked to breast cancer development.

To do this, there are different elements to my project. I will do a systematic review* of existing literature and identify genes related to BPA exposure via computer-based approaches. Then I will design laboratory experiments to assess the involvement of these genes in breast cancer development. Finally, BPA levels will be measured in tissue samples. Breast cancer patients will donate these to determine whether the evidence supports a link between BPA exposure and breast cancer development.

*A systematic review summarises the results of all studies on a specific topic, checks their quality and analyses them according to a defined, methodologically well-thought-out process.

Q: What difference do you think your research will make? 

Even though it has been found that BPA may have adverse effects on people’s health, its effects are still not completely understood. One particular area is BPA’s acceptable daily intake limit, which varies greatly between different authorities. As there is limited evidence on the low-dose effects of BPA on breast cancer development, I hope to shed more light on that with my research.

Q: You started your project a few weeks ago: How are you finding it, and what were your first tasks?

So far, it has been great. I have been reading up on BPA in general and its connection to various health issues, with a focus on breast cancer, of course. This gave me an overview of the research that has already been done regarding BPA and breast cancer development. I also undertook courses on how to write a systematic review, as this is the first big aim of my project. After attending these courses, I am currently identifying papers to include in my own systematic review.

Q: What does a typical day at work look like for you? 

Usually, I start the day by doing background reading on BPA. I then go on to work on my systematic review. As I just started my project, there is a lot of searching for papers from different online databases and determining whether to include these papers in my systematic review or not. So, at the moment, I am doing a lot of reading.

Q: In terms of your career: What do you hope to be doing in five years? 

I am not quite sure yet.  I have just started my PhD, and I am fully focused on my project at the moment. However, I plan on staying in academia and breast cancer research. There are many things we still don’t know about breast cancer. I feel like doing a post-doc in breast cancer research somewhere in the UK or abroad. It would be great as this will develop the skills I learn doing my PhD. There are so many possibilities for my future career, so it’s hard to decide.

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

It is very difficult to choose as there are so many great scientists, but I would have to say Jane C. Wright, as she contributed so much to the field of cancer research. She made major advancements in how we treat cancer nowadays by optimising chemotherapy. Therefore, without her, cancer treatment may look very different today. I think it is important to acknowledge the often-underappreciated work of female scientists.

Q: Where do you like to be when you’re not working?  

I am usually found at the rowing club, where we train for national competitions. However, I also love to hike. So if I can get a free weekend, I try to be outdoors as much as possible.

You can help fund our research to understand more about the causes of breast cancer.  So that we can prevent breast cancer for future generations. Donate today. Your support can make a difference. Thank you.

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