Professor Caroline Dive, CBE.

In this year’s New Year’s Honours list one of our researchers, Professor Caroline Dive, has been named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). We spoke to her about this recognition of her outstanding career, the changes she has seen in her time at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and what’s she’s excited for in the future.

When did you find out that you were on the list?

It was a couple of weeks ago. I was in London at the time. My husband phoned me and said I had a letter with ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ on the envelope. I presumed it was a tax bill but when he opened it and read it aloud I almost fell over with surprise.

How does it feel to be Professor Caroline Dive, CBE?

I think amazed is the best word to use. As well as incredibly delighted, not just for me but for the Institute. Even though it’s a personal award for services to cancer research, I think it reflects the multidisciplinary team work that we’ve built here in Manchester. Over the last decade we’ve worked really hard to pull scientists and clinicians together to get science into clinical trials to improve patient outcomes.

Getting this honour must make you reflect on you career, are there any defining moments?

I took a calculated risk in 2003 to move away from more basic science, an area of cancer research that was my comfort zone, to set up a new translational research team focussed on biomarkers.

What is a cancer biomarker?

A naturally occurring molecule that is special to a cancer cell or a process associated with cancer and can be used to provide information about a patient’s disease.

I knew it was the right thing to do as I was working right next to the Christie Hospital in Manchester and every day I could see the impact cancer had on people and that personalised medicine needed to be developed. This required useful biomarkers that could be measured to patients’ samples. There weren’t very many cancer researchers really dedicated to this type of research at the time, so it was an area that needed investigation. It was very much a risk worth taking.

What are you most proud of from your time at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute?

I’m very proud of the research we’ve done in lung cancer. In Manchester I have been working very closely with medical oncologist Dr Fiona Blackhall, my partner on the clinical side at the Christie Hospital. Together we’re 2 plus 2 equals 10. Setting up the Cancer Research UK Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence between Manchester and UCL with Professor Charles Swanton has also been very productive and am I am delighted with the increase in the training of young lung cancer researchers we have achieved. It’s team work like this which improves outcomes for patients.

I’m also very proud of the way we have developed a training environment for clinicians to learn about biomarker sciences. We began the Clinical Pharmacology Fellowship scheme in 2005 and I’ve been training clinical fellows in the lab ever since, which has been both a privilege and a pleasure.

Prof Dive’s research in a nutshell:

Professor Caroline Dive and her team are developing ‘liquid biopsies’ that hunt for cancer cells or molecules within cancer cells that have broken free from tumours and are circulating in the bloodstream. These liquid biopsies are less invasive for the patient than tumour biopsies and offer clues about how cancer develops, grows and spreads, what treatment might be best and how tumours can become resistant to treatment.

What’s your most important paper that you’ve published and what did it show?

We published a paper in the journal Nature Medicine in 2014 that I think was a real ‘step change’ for small cell lung cancer research. We showed that we can take circulating tumour cells from the blood samples of patients with small cell lung cancer and grow them to form tumours just like the patient’s in mice. Growing the tumour away from the patient in this way had never been done before and all we needed was a 10 ml sample of blood from the patient rather than an invasive biopsy of the lung. It means we can study the biology of this dismal disease and test a variety of treatments to see which ones are best at killing the cancer cells. We are now working with a number of drug developers aiming to take the most effective drugs to clinical trials. The day we got that paper published was very much a defining moment for our team.

How has cancer research changed through the course of your career?

There has been a revolution really in the basic understanding of cancers and how we can personalise a patient’s treatment since I started my career in the mid 1980s. I’ve done a lot of work with Cancer Research UK to develop biomarker sciences. At the start, I witnessed clinical trials without biomarkers, but now more and more often the biology is being better understood. Now the biomarkers that come from this understanding are driving the clinical trial designs. That’s the journey that I have been on with Cancer Research UK in Manchester and it’s been brilliant to be part of that journey.

What are you excited for in the future?

In the future, I hope that personalised medicine will become more and more commonplace in the clinic and that we will be using blood testing (liquid biopsies), routinely to inform a patient’s treatment. Ultimately, I would like to see the development of very sensitive tests and folks giving their blood samples within their communities so that cancers could be picked up earlier with better chance of effective treatment. I have been very fortunate to work with two great leaders at the Institute, Professor Nic Jones and then Professor Richard Marais. The platform we have built together means that our future research is ambitious and exciting, bringing the science and the clinic ever closer together.

And finally, what are your motivations that help you get up and go to the lab every morning?

That’s an easy question. Since 2003, I have worked in the same building as the Christie Hospital. The urgent medical need is walking along those corridors every day of my working life. But also, my paternal grandfather died of a brain tumour. I never got to meet him, he died before I was born. It had a profound impact on my mother and as I was going through my young career, I think this was always at the back of my mind.

Our Chief Executive, Sir Harpal Kumar, said:

“This is a fantastic and well deserved honour for Caroline. Cancer Research UK is extremely proud to have supported Caroline for most of her research career. Her pursuit of answers to the questions that will transform the outlook for cancer patients is relentless. Her work is helping us to more precisely define which patients should get which treatments, and is showing great promise in being able to detect potentially lethal cancers earlier, when they have a greater chance of being treated successfully. Caroline is also helping train the next generation of doctors and researchers, offering hope for countless patients in the future.”

To find out more about Professor Caroline Dive’s work watch this video.

And read about Professor Caroline Dive’s research in more detail in this blog post.