Meet Professor Ann Williams who tells us about her research and the important message behind the Creative Reactions artwork inspired by her work.
Can you tell us a little about your research?
We have known for a long time that aspirin can help to prevent bowel cancer, but we don’t yet know the mechanism by which this occurs. We know that aspirin inhibits cyclooxygenases, a class of enzymes that produce prostaglandins such as PG2 which can promote cancer. However, drugs that inhibit selective cyclooxygenases are not as effective as aspirin at inhibiting cancer. This suggests that aspirin is doing something else to protect against bowel cancer.
‘I am incredibly lucky to be in a career where I learn something new every day’
The research we are doing is looking at the effects of aspirin that do not involve cyclooxygenase inhibition. We are modelling human tumour progression, to investigate the effects of long-term aspirin exposure on the proteins made by our cells.
The long-term goal of this research is to help inform how people should be taking aspirin. We still do not know if people should take aspirin every day, what dose is most effective and whether they should take it before or after bowel cancer surgery. Aspirin may be excellent as a preventative medicine however there are risks associated with its use. We need to understand a lot more about how it works before we recommend taking aspirin to healthy individuals.
More realistically aspirin appears to be very effective for people who are already at increased risk of developing the disease. For these individuals there is currently little the NHS can offer. These are the people who may benefit from taking regular aspirin, but we still need to fully understand how it works to know how much and often they should take it.
What inspired you into bowel cancer research?
Helping to prevent bowel cancer is hugely important to me, especially as my father died from the disease when he was only 55. Working with my supervisor and mentor, Professor Chris Paraskeva was also hugely influential: my first job with Chris came about after I asked a question at a scientific meeting. Chris approached me to ask about my PhD and encouraged me to apply for a postdoc position in his lab. I now tell my students that it is always worth putting your hand up, you never know who is listening and what may happen!
What do you feel when you see the artwork based on your work?
I think its fabulous! It shows the development of a colorectal tumour as it spirals out of control. It is really clever, and I hope it will appeal to both non-specialists and specialist alike.
Progression of Colorectal Cancer by Claudia Stoker
The great thing about doing this work is it gives people a chance to ask questions, to start a discussion. This is so important particularly with bowel cancer where people often ignore symptoms because they are embarrassed. If we can get people to go to their doctor if they think they have symptoms, the chances are that if it is a tumour, it will be caught at an early stage which can be cured by surgery.
What do you think will be the next big breakthrough in your field?
One of the big frustrations in this field is that there is screening available which is effective, but many people do not take advantage of it. In addition, it is evident from research that bowel cancer is becoming more prevalent in younger people. GPs don’t expect younger people to have bowel cancer and symptoms can be ignored: this means that younger patients can be diagnosed later with more advanced disease. Improving ways in which we can stratify younger people towards screening would be a great thing, it could help improve the prognosis for this group of patients too.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
There are many things: I am incredibly lucky to be in a career where I learn something new every day. You can be massively frustrated by scientific experiments, but never bored. Every question we answer generates many more questions. The research environment also means I get to work with brilliant people from a wide range of ages and backgrounds which is a huge privilege.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I am proud that our research has contributed to improving health through clinical trials and initiatives such as the 5-a-day fruit/veg campaign.
I also really like seeing aspiring researchers succeed! I have enjoyed helping some brilliant students who have gone on to do great things and have very successful careers.
Do you have any words of wisdoms for aspiring researchers out there?
Always ask questions and don’t be scared. It is very easy in a conference to hide away but be a little brave. These days it is acknowledged that research is a difficult career, you need to be resilient. But make the most of every opportunity, ultimately it is great privilege to work as an academic, it is a career path that encourages true creative exploration.
Ann Williams is a Professor of Experimental Oncology in the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Ann specialises in studying the mechanisms by which low dose aspirin can help prevent bowel cancer.