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Paying it forward: When Maria met Sheeba

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

8 March 2021

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Maria Garcia and Dr Sheeba Irshad
Maria García (left) was inspired to support Dr Sheeba Irshad (right) after hearing her speak at a charity event.

At a charity event in 2016, Dr Sheeba Irshad spoke passionately to a room of our supporters about her work as a Cancer Research UK clinician scientist. Sheeba talked about how she would sometimes have to tell women with certain subtypes of breast cancer that “the cancer didn’t respond well to chemotherapy”, “the surgery hasn’t worked” and “we currently have no treatment options to offer you”. She told them of her mission to rectify this – to offer women with these breast cancers more options. She would do this by understanding the biology underpinning their resistance to treatment to determine whether immunotherapies – highly effective for many types of cancer – may work for them where other treatments had failed.

In the crowd at that event was Maria García, a philanthropist and former lawyer with an interest in science and a personal connection to cancer. “I thought she was incredible,” says Maria. “Passionate, very clever and insightful.” After her talk, Sheeba took guests on a tour of her lab. “We saw people waiting to have blood tests and treatment,” says Maria. “I was very moved by what she was doing, and that she’s a woman.”

No plan B

Maria moved to the UK from Chile in 1991 with her husband Gonzalo and their young children. Gonzalo had received a scholarship to study from the British Council, without which Maria says the move would have been “absolutely impossible”. “We sold everything and crossed our fingers,” she says. “We worked very hard to make a life here and to fund my master’s degree, and we took every opportunity. Failing wasn’t an option – there was no plan B.” 

Maria and Gonzalo have wanted to give back ever since. “We were lucky,” she says. “Yes, we worked extremely hard, but we were given a chance and many people don’t get one.” They have given to many causes, particularly those that support children and women. “I’m a feminist,” she says proudly. “I have three daughters and a son, and I was a lawyer. There’s still work to be done to level the playing field for women in every area.” But Cancer Research UK had a particularly personal appeal for Maria whose mother was diagnosed in 2006 with a very rare type of cancer and whose sister was recently diagnosed with skin cancer. Her mother is now cancer free. Her sister is awaiting surgery. “Luckily, doctors caught it early,” says Maria. 

This deeply personal connection to the cause, coupled with her objective to support brilliant women through philanthropy, meant that supporting Sheeba’s work was a no-brainer for Maria: “I came home and said, ‘We’re supporting her as much as we can!’”

Aiming even higher

For Sheeba and her team, Maria and Gonzalo’s gift meant they could continue their life-saving research with confidence and have just launched a new clinical trial that should soon be live in 12 UK hospitals. The trial will help the team better understand the biology of these subtypes of breast cancer and do just what Sheeba had said she would do – provide women with more options. 

“When someone gives a gift, as scientists we need to work even harder to make sure that we do what we say we will”

“Science is full of disappointments and things often don’t work out the way that you want. So, when you get a response like that from a supporter, it’s a real boost for both the science and the team,” says Sheeba. “It makes you try even harder and aim even higher. When someone gives a gift, as scientists we need to work even harder to make sure that we do what we say we will.” And fundamentally, good science is expensive. “That’s the reality,” agrees Sheeba. “Without philanthropic support, I wouldn’t be where I am today, and my team wouldn’t be doing the science they are.”

COVID-19 and cancer

The science Sheeba and her team have most recently completed has provided insight into how COVID-19 impacts people with cancer. The study, published in January, suggests that people with solid tumour cancers mount the same response to CoV-SARS-2 (the virus underlying COVID-19) as people without cancer. Crucially, it also suggests that people with non-solid tumour cancers, such as blood cancers, vary in their ability to respond to the virus. Many people in the study were unable to shake off the virus for up to 90 days after the first signs of infection – around five times longer than the average. 

The paper is one of Sheeba’s first as a senior lead author. “A lot of the decisions that were made about care and treatments for COVID-19 were based on data from non-cancer patient populations. But for people with cancer, one size really doesn’t fit all,” she says. “For me, it was important that we try to understand the effects of the virus specifically in people with cancer. And as a clinician scientist – meaning I’m both a cancer doctor and researcher – I was in a really unique position to answer some biological questions to get a deeper understanding of what was happening in our patients.” 

For Maria, the significance of this new study was plainly clear: “This research should help to relieve some of the worry for people with solid tumour cancers,” she says. “For people with blood cancers, the news is more difficult, but at least now we know the risks, and knowing means opening the door to further investigation and prioritisation.” 

Building a fairer platform

Like Maria, Sheeba is passionate about supporting women. As a student, she says she struggled to find a female mentor and recalls the “incredible moment” she realised she had become one herself. “I had a master’s student who, at the end of her six months with me, said she was going to apply to medical school because she’d been inspired by the way I had juggled the clinic and the lab,” says Sheeba. “I smiled a lot that day because I could see her being a great doctor. I’m glad our paths crossed.”

But of course, there are still many hurdles for women in science. What had Sheeba’s experience been? “I’ve been relatively lucky but there are definitely issues. For example, there are a lot of women PhD students, postdoctoral fellows and research assistants. But the numbers start to drop significantly at the faculty level.”

Sheeba says she’s pleased with our charity’s “proactive approach” to building an inclusive and diverse culture for all its people, as published in our recent Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy. “Ultimately,” she says, “we have to ensure a fair platform for all regardless of gender, age, religion or race, so we can all just focus on delivering good science for the whole of society.”

And for having the work ethic to deliver good but highly arduous science, she thanks her mum, who gave her the best piece of advice she ever received: “Hard work always pays off” – a message that has certainly proven accurate for Sheeba. But what advice would she now give to junior female scientists? “Be yourself and don’t feel pressurised to change into someone you don’t want to be,” she says. “Because that’s the other thing about being a woman: as you rise through the ranks, there’s a perception that you have to be a certain way to be successful. I really try to fight that.”

“Being able to help shine a torch in a whole world of darkness, in our own tiny way, has been incredible for our family”

Sheeba and Maria are just two examples of the contribution that talented, dedicated women can make in the world of cancer research, and their partnership shows what can be achieved when women recognise and support each other in their work. So, what would Sheeba like to say to Maria and Gonzalo? “My message to them would be a simple thank you,” she says. “Our achievements really wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for their help.”

And for Maria, the entire experience has been very humbling. “Being able to help shine a torch in a whole world of darkness, in our own tiny way, has been incredible for our family,” she says. “Sheeba was able to adapt her work to run in parallel with COVID-19 research, but at the same time, not leave behind people with cancer. Hats off to her.”

 

Jo Lewin, Philanthropy Communications Specialist at Cancer Research UK