QUT’s Dr Nathalie Bock was recently awarded a Young Researcher prize for her project ‘All-human bioengineered in vitro models as platforms for cancer research’ as part of the Lush Prize. In this Behind the Science interview, we uncover some insights into Dr Bock’s motivation for this progressive research.
With the use of human cells, the pioneering cancer models from Dr Bock can provide a more relevant platform to study human cancer. By using tissues from patients directly, artificial tissues, such as bone, are recreated in the laboratory. The bone-like artificial tissues are then used in co-culture with prostate cancer cells, in order to partly recreate the 3D context and microenvironment of prostate cancer disseminated to bone, a lethal condition. This human ‘bone metastasis’ laboratory model provides an all-human platform with unprecedented opportunities to study the bone/tumour interactions and screen rapidly for novel treatments, while avoiding the use of animals.
We invited Dr Bock to share some insights about her research project, and the path that led her to pursue a career in medical research.
Banksia Scientific: When did you first become interested in a career in science?
Dr Bock: I have always been fascinated by the fundamental sciences of physics and chemistry at school, and most specifically by the idea that the nature of our world, and beyond, could be described by these principles. For me, biology was by far the most intriguing science and the fact that its dysfunction may lead to diseases and death was just a reality that I was not willing to accept without a fight. So, after I lost a close relative to brain cancer when I was 20 years old, I was highly motivated to pursue a career in this field. At that time I was studying materials science and engineering but it gave me drive to transition to the biomedical sciences and find the path to one day become a health researcher.
‘I have always been fascinated by the fundamental sciences of physics and chemistry’
Banksia Scientific: Is there a researcher or scientist you admire, or any other sources of inspiration?
Dr Bock: My greatest source of inspiration are the diseased people. I admire their strength and courage to go through inhuman treatments, their resilience and fight for survival. These people inspire me to always do my best individually but also collectively, so that we can one day cure all diseases.
Banksia Scientific: Your research project focused on human bioengineered in vitro models for cancer research – why was it important to develop an all-human approach?
Dr Bock: Nowadays, drug testing regulatory procedures systemically use animals as human surrogates. While accepted as a necessary step for biological safety and efficacy testing, 80-90% of drugs still fail in human clinical trials. Although animals and humans are both living organisms, they do bear biological and physical inherent differences, which will likely lead to discrepancies from implementing the results from one to the other. In fact, the two biggest reasons for failures in clinical trials are; safety (24%) and efficacy (52%). What works in animals may not work in humans. Animal testing practices may ultimately only waste scarce medical resources, as well as take the lives of millions of animals.
Oncology has the highest percentage of clinical failures due to cancer complexity and heterogeneity. Constantly adapting, cancer eventually overcomes most animal-validated treatments, limiting considerably the predictability potential of animal models. A new mindset needs to be integrated where full animal replacement occurs, so that funds and energy are invested in performing cutting-edge human research with human tissues and cells instead.
Banksia Scientific: What does it mean to win a Young Researcher prize?
Dr Bock: For me winning a Young Researcher Prize is an invaluable opportunity to help me through this challenging stage of my career. The situation of young researchers is extremely precarious in terms of short contracts and little funding available. Usually young researchers rely on their experienced mentors and they may not be able to follow their own ideas. Winning this prize will enable me to start testing my own research ideas, to recruit assistance for my research, paving the way to my own independence. It is also a great recognition of my current work, which empowers me to persevere, despite the hurdles of being a young researcher, but also female and with a young family.
‘My ultimate goal is to offer clinicians with a versatile platform for personalised medicine for any bone-metastasising cancer’
Banksia Scientific: What future goals do you have for your research?
Dr Bock: My ultimate goal is to offer clinicians with a versatile platform for personalised medicine for any bone-metastasising cancer. By providing a human and patient specific platform to clinicians, an arsenal of drug options can be quickly tested for a more rapid testing of hypotheses, so that personalized treatments can be administered. Ultimately, this approach will be best as it will reduce medical resource waste and improve the success of human trials by keeping it human only.
Banksia Scientific: What advice would you give to young people thinking about a career in science?
Dr Bock: I personally find it the most rewarding career to have the possibility to advance knowledge and make significant contributions to human health. There are still so many things to discover, improve and develop so it is certainly very exciting to be part of the advancement of science. However the reality of a career in scientific research can come as a shock to young people, it requires resilience, drive, and perseverance. My advice would be to try to find out what really drives you in life and ask yourself whether you are ready to make that commitment. I also want to encourage all females who think this career is not compatible with a family. I have encountered successful female scientists who have made the most important contributions to various fields. Ultimately, diversity is the best asset of any workplace and we need more women in science so that multi-faceted problems can be tackled in the most comprehensive way.
Behind the Science – insights from scientists, researchers and professionals from a range of scientific fields.