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Professor Margaret Frame OBE and her contribution to cancer research

by Gabriella Beer | Analysis

24 January 2018

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At the start of this year Professor Margaret Frame, science director at the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre, was given an OBE for her contribution to cancer research. We chatted to her about her career, what she’s looking forward to in the future and what motivates her.

You’ve had a few weeks to let the news about your OBE sink in, how does it feel to be recognised in this way?

It’s very nice to be awarded this honour. I think the best thing is the recognition of the team effort and the science we have done together. This is all thanks to the wonderful colleagues around me.

Tell us a little bit more about your work.

For a long time, my team and I have been studying a certain group of proteins called kinases. We started with these because their genes are known to be involved in cancer when they became faulty. It turns out that these proteins control the ability of a cell to move and grow. We discovered how cancer cells interact with other cancer cells and their environment, and how they migrate abnormally as cancer’s spread. More recently we’ve been trying to understand the complexity of what happens in cancer cells. We can now use innovative technologies and approaches to understand the key interactions between the proteins that give cancer cells their properties. I also now work a lot with colleagues who treat patients on a daily basis. Because we found that these kinases also affect the way the tumour environment and how the immune system interacts with tumours, some of our recent findings have led to a clinical trial testing out combinations of treatments with immunotherapy drugs.

The work we do is only important if clinicians are interested in it because it may have value for patients.

What is a protein kinase?

Kinases switch other molecules on and off inside cells to control what the cell does in response to different signals.

What changes have you seen in your specific field of cancer research?

The changes have been massive and that’s partly because of advances in technology. New technologies drive new innovations in cancer research. The arrival of a certain machines called mass spectrometers have revolutionised how we understand the complex interactions of proteins that drive cancer. Also changes in molecular imaging have been really prominent over the last few decades.

A community of cancer cells interacting with each other. The heart of the cancer cells, where the genetic material is stored, is called the nucleus (blue). The actin cytoskeleton (red) gives the cells structural support, helping them move and keep their shape. Image Credit: Professor Margaret Frame.

What would you say is the most important change you’ve seen?

I think the most important change is the way that we think about cancer now in terms of personalised medicine and understanding the molecular make up of individuals tumours. These factors are something we can take into account now and we didn’t have the technology to do that before.

What would you say is the stand out achievement of your career?

I feel very positive about many achievements. But in 2015, we discovered a completely new function for a known cancer-promoting protein that could change the way in which the immune system interacted with tumours.  Due to this discovery, it became clear that there was now an opportunity to use existing drugs in a different way. This ‘repurposing’ of existing drugs led to a clinical trial which is going on right now. It’s a real privilege to work in cancer research and discover and understand things people did not know before that may help patients in the future.

What are you excited for in the future? 

I’m really excited about personalised treatments and understanding individual cancers. I think we will start to understand more about the proteins that drive cancer and so which ones we need to target. This will also help us understand how to handle cancers once they relapse. When I started 30 years ago, curing people wasn’t considered a likely option, but I think now with immunotherapy and other approaches, there is the possibility that drug combinations can realistically cure people. Curing people is an aspiration, but discovering ways of keeping people living longer with cancer is also important.

What motivates you to keep researching cancer?

I find science exciting. It’s being able to use new technologies to discover new things that I enjoy. But as my career has progressed it has become more about linking our new discoveries to helping patients and devoting time and energy to training the next generation of cancer research scientists and leaders. In my role now, I spend a lot of time with younger people and they are really inspiring. It’s crucial to me that the next generation have all these advantages and opportunities and that they are both mentored and cared for as they start their careers. It’s these young scientists who will be the ones with the new ideas and who will give us new understanding in the future.

And finally, how is your lab helping us beat cancer right now?

We just had our Cancer Research UK programme grant renewed again. My team will be working on glioblastoma, a cancer of an unmet need. This is a new area for us, in collaboration with Prof Steve Pollard, who has been instrumental in developing new patient-derived cellular models. In this work, we will try to understand the molecular mechanisms that drive these cancers and look into the complex protein networks at the heart of the cancer cells as well as on their surface. My team consists of cell and molecular biologists, protein technologists and bioinformaticians, and so we’re going to build a multidisciplinary team that will drive forward the work that will help others beat cancer in the future.

Our Chief Executive, Sir Harpal Kumar, said: “We would like extend our congratulations to Margaret. Her research is helping us tackle one of the biggest challenges in cancer treatment – how to stop the disease spreading through the body.”

Read more about Professor Frame’s work in this blog post.