Interview with Pezcoller-Marina Larcher Fogazzaro-EACR Award winner Karen Vousden

Meet Professor Karen Vousden, the winner of the first Pezcoller-Marina Larcher Fogazzaro-EACR Women in Cancer Research Award.

Karen Vousden is the winner of the first Pezcoller-Marina Larcher Fogazzaro-EACR Women in Cancer Research Award, which celebrates a cancer researcher who has demonstrated academic excellence and achievements in the field of cancer research and who has, through leadership or by example, furthered the advancement of women in cancer research. Professor Vousden will be presented with her award at the EACR Congress (9-12 June 2021) by The Pezcoller Foundation President, Enzo Galligioni. Learn more about the Award

We took this opportunity to ask Professor Vousden a few questions about her research and her career, which will be inspiring to our community of cancer researchers.

What is your current research about?

My group is working on how changes in metabolism can affect cancer development and progression, and whether we can use this information to help improve the response to cancer therapy. We have had a focus on the function of the tumour suppressor protein p53 and our more recent work has examined how p53 works to protect cells from excessive oxidative stress. This has led us into a series of studies that are dissecting how the regulation of oxidative stress affects different steps in tumour progression, helping to shed light on why there are such disparate responses to anti-oxidant treatment in cancer therapy. We are also interested in understanding how metabolism and p53 status impacts the relationship between cancer cells and their surroundings, including various components of the immune response.

What excites you most about your current research?

All of the research we do excites me – there is such pleasure in coming to work each day with the knowledge that we may uncover something that explains a complex biological problem and may help us to devise more efficient cancer therapies. We never know when such a breakthrough might happen, which makes every day exciting.

What’s the best thing about your work?

One of the best things about work is the pleasure and privilege of working with an incredible group of passionate, brilliant and dedicated co-workers. Beyond our lab we are also constantly interacting with and talking to an international group of stellar scientists – and under normal conditions we have the added pleasure of travelling the world to meet with them face to face. I am looking forward to the return of these interactions.

You’ve had an incredible career in cancer research. When did you know you wanted to be a scientist and was your career path planned out in any way?

I realised at high school that research was something I would enjoy – initially simply for the challenge of discovering something that was previously unknown. I never really considered any other profession and I’ve been very lucky in my wonderful mentors who encouraged and helped me along the way. As I progressed in my career the tantalizing prospect that something I was contributing to might one day translate into a therapy to help cancer patients has become another strong driver for me.

What advice would you offer an early career scientist who wants to progress to your level? Would you offer any different or extra advice to a young female scientist?

My advice is to follow your heart and take the career choice you feel passionate about. Research can be hard, exhausting and disappointing – but the rewards can be immense if you are working on something you feel is truly significant and important. Be confident and believe in yourself – or at least act as if you do! We all suffer from self-doubt but never shy away from taking the most exciting and demanding path – because this is where you will find fulfilment.  I think this advice is equally important for all young scientists, male and female.

We all suffer from self-doubt but never shy away from taking the most exciting and demanding path – because this is where you will find fulfilment. 

What qualities do you look for when you’re hiring new scientists to your lab?

I look for that spark of excitement – someone who really wants to know and understand the problem they are focused on. I like people to be ambitious – but also it’s very important to be collegiate and collaborative. I am very careful to make sure new lab members will fit as part of the team – a happy lab is definitely a more productive lab.

Would you recommend the EACR to a colleague, and why?

The EACR is a wonderful way to network and find colleagues with similar interests, while also providing exposure to different fields and areas of study. Cancer research is so broad and multidisciplined that organisations like EACR play an important and valuable role in bringing us all together.

Karen’s research focuses on the tumour suppressor protein p53, which plays an important role in cancer prevention. Her lab is interested in understanding the signals that induce p53 and the functions of p53 that contribute to its ability to prevent cancer progression. This work has also expanded to encompass an interest in cancer metabolism. Ultimately, the hope is to be able find ways to turn this increased understanding of tumour biology into new treatments and strategies for tackling cancer.

Following the discovery of p53 in the 1970s, Karen’s work, spanning roles in the USA and UK, has helped uncover how p53 works and how it is controlled. She spent over ten years as the Director of the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, before moving to London in 2016 to take up the role of Chief Scientist at CRUK and Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute.

A recent example of Karen’s work, published in Nature Communications, found that restricting the amount of serine in the diet of mice when given alongside a drug that prevents the body from making it, reduced tumour cell growth in several different models of bowel cancer.