10 February, 2022

To celebrate International Women’s Day and British Science Week this March, we want to celebrate the women at Breast Cancer UK who make our work possible. Meet Britta Stordal, cancer researcher, Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University, and Trustee of Breast Cancer UK.

We asked Britta about her research area and her background in science. Keep reading to find out what Britta had to say.

What got you interested in the field of scientific research?

“I actually wanted to be a detective when I was very young. I was mad for solving puzzles and mysteries all the time. There were plenty of opportunities to solve puzzles in scientific research, with much less chance of getting injured”.

Your main field of research is ovarian cancer, but you’ve also done some work on breast cancer. Are these two cancers linked?

“Yes. One of the risk factors for getting breast cancer and ovarian cancer is the same, a mutation in the BRCA gene. You may have heard about BRCA mutations when actress Angelia Jolie spoke publicly about having a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of getting breast cancer. Not all breast and ovarian cancers are caused by a problem with BRCA. However, if there are several people in your family who were diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer, particularly at a young age it would be a good idea to discuss this with your GP and see a genetic councillor”.

Some of your research focuses on treatment and resistance to treatments, do breast cancer and ovarian cancer share any treatments?

“Ovarian cancer is treated by surgery and then chemotherapy. There are four main kinds of breast cancer, and they all have their own treatments, some of which involve treatment with chemotherapy. Women with BRCA-related breast cancer are treated with chemotherapy. As well as women with other kinds of breast cancer after a relapse”.

With your research area, what question are you most interested in answering?

“Women with ovarian cancer are currently all treated with the same kind of chemotherapy. Some respond well, and others, unfortunately, do not. I am hoping that my research will establish a biomarker. Something to test for to determine if an individual patient will respond to chemotherapy”.

Why is this important?

“Women with ovarian cancer deserve their own personalised therapy. They are just as important as breast cancer patients who already have a more tailored personal approach. As ovarian cancer is much less common than breast cancer much less research funding has been devoted to it. This is understandable, of course, but it means that treatments for less common cancers are not going to be as advanced and less people will survive them”.

What’s your assessment of the priority being given to breast cancer prevention in the UK?

“I don’t think there is much of a priority of reducing the risks that specifically relate to breast cancer. There is more of a priority on general public health, like diet, exercise, and eliminating smoking. These will help prevent breast cancer and many other diseases as well. Given how common breast cancer is it makes sense to have a specific strategy for this. Reducing exposure to chemicals that may increase breast cancer risk would be an excellent start.”

What do you feel is the biggest challenge with understanding the causes of breast cancer?

“Establishing the link between chemical exposure and breast cancer requires very careful research. Harmful chemicals have been detected in breast tissue samples from breast cancer patients. However, not every study also looks at breast tissue from healthy people to see if they have a similar or lower amount of chemical exposure.

For a chemical to be linked to causing breast cancer you would expect to see higher levels in cancer samples compared to healthy samples. It can be a challenge to get samples from healthy people to use as a comparison in research. Fortunately, in the UK we have access to several breast cancer tissue banks which also collect samples from healthy people who have had breast surgery for other reasons”.

What is the coolest or your favourite thing about your work?

“The liquid nitrogen, its temperature is -196°C! I’m still as impressed with it as I was when I was an undergraduate student. We use liquid nitrogen tanks for the long-term storage of cancer cells. It’s a very safe form of storage as it’s not dependent on electricity like the freezers. It’s also colder, the coldest freezer we have in the lab ‘only’ goes down to -80°C. You do need to be careful using it as cold burns can be very serious, you need to wear a lab coat, gloves, and eye protection”.

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

“All forms of craft and cooking. These days it’s mostly the kinds of activities that I can do with my daughters. My five-year-old is consequently very good in the kitchen as well as being keen to apply glue and pom-poms to everything”.

What scientist living or dead do you most admire?

“I will have to go with a naturalist rather than a scientist – David Attenborough. The genre of television that he was central in the development of has had such a positive impact on the world. I was fortunate enough to meet him at a book signing in Sydney many years ago. I took the afternoon off work and carried half my bookshelf in to be autographed”.

Together with our scientists and researchers, we can reduce the number of people hearing the devastating words ‘you have breast cancer’. Our scientists conduct their crucial animal-free research to understand the causes of breast cancer, so we can reduce the chances of our loved ones experiencing a diagnosis in the future.

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