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“After a fire and a pandemic, it felt amazing to finish my PhD”

by Emily Armstrong | In depth

1 November 2021

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(L) Artist's impression of the new Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute (R) Former PhD student, Fabrizio

When in 2017 a devastating fire significantly damaged the Paterson Building, home of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, it was particularly disruptive for its PhD students. But staff and the city pulled together, allowing researchers to continue their vital work against the odds.

Today, we celebrate the ‘topping out’ ceremony of a brand new research facility, which has risen from the ashes thanks to support from our philanthropic community and local partners The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and The University of Manchester. Here, we speak with former PhD student Fabrizio who, despite the fire and a pandemic, has now completed his course and landed a fantastic new role. 

Manchester has a long and rich history of pioneering cancer research, with our charity at its heart. Among its many achievements are developing a way to deliver a consistent, evenly distributed dose of radiation to a tumour – a method that was internationally adopted for 50 years – and launching the UK’s first proton beam therapy centre in partnership with The Christie NHS Foundation Trust.

This advanced type of radiotherapy is particularly exciting because of its high precision, which limits damage to cells around the tumour and gives the potential to administer a stronger, more targeted treatment. And the TORPEdO clinical trial, which we fund with generous support from the Taylor Family Foundation, is now helping us understand more about its life-saving potential.

A turning point

The Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute is one of four outstanding institutes we fund its work spanning the whole spectrum of cancer research, from investigating the disease’s molecular and cellular basis to developing new treatments. Formerly housed in the Paterson building, our researchers suffered a serious setback when a devastating fire broke out four years ago, displacing more than 300 staff. “It was awful,” recalls director Professor Caroline Dive. “But our institute is far more than bricks and mortar. We pulled together. Our staff were incredibly resilient and, miraculously, no patient samples were lost.”

Rising from the ashes was an opportunity to create something new. In partnership with The Christie and The University of Manchester, we’re developing a new facility that will be twice the size of the Paterson building, scheduled to open in spring 2023.

With donations from a wide range of generous supporters, including the Warburton family, the new research facility will be filled with state-of-the-art equipment and enable us to attract and retain talent from around the world. It will be the first Cancer Research UK institute that is physically attached to a cancer hospital, with researchers, clinicians and allied healthcare professionals working together with patients in the largest single-site co-location of cancer consultants and multi-disciplinary scientists in the UK. Patients will benefit from having a real-time, all-body cancer care experience, and the new building will provide the necessary infrastructure to drive the translation of research into clinical advances that will benefit cancer patients across the world.

As Brett Warburton told us last year, “We’re going to see Manchester become a world-leading centre that appeals to the very best researchers. I’m looking forward to seeing research teams working hand-in-glove with clinicians to truly improve the lives and chances of people diagnosed with cancer.”

A lasting impact

While the new facility may promise to help change the face of cancer research, the fire’s lasting impact on the researchers cannot be understated. For those in the early stages of their careers, such as PhD students, it was particularly disruptive. This year, we were immensely proud to see them successfully complete their PhDs and go on to secure academic positions and other professional roles in scientific organisations around the world.

One such student is Fabrizio Simeoni, now a postdoctoral researcher at another of our four research institutes, the Francis Crick Institute. Fabrizio has always been fascinated by cancer biology and, specifically, how the disease causes cells to divide uncontrollably. “When I was looking for PhD courses, I focused on Cancer Research UK because I knew about the high standard of science and the excellent research facilities,” says Fabrizio. “So, when an advert appeared online for a PhD at the Manchester Institute in Tim Somervaille’s lab, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Professor Somervaille is a senior group leader and clinician scientist whose group focuses on acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). They’re working to understand the mechanisms by which blood cells turn cancerous, with the aim to develop new treatments to target those abnormalities. In particular, the team is interested in the mechanisms that cells use to switch their genes on and off in the right time and place – a phenomenon known as epigenetics. On an otherwise normal morning in April 2017, this complex topic was all-consuming for Fabrizio… until the fire alarm sounded.

“Like nothing I’ve seen before”

Assuming it was only a drill, Fabrizio and his colleagues were surprised to see the building quickly engulfed in flames. But, he says, “Everyone was reassured that we’d have an extension to our contracts where necessary, and they offered us extra support, like counselling,” says Fabrizio. “It meant I didn’t feel the level of stress that I could have following such a difficult event. The support was amazing – like nothing I’ve seen before.”

Fortunately for Fabrizio, he didn’t lose too much work – but his team did lose precious time while they waited to be relocated and the rest of the institute’s facilities were rehoused. After a few weeks, Fabrizio and his team were moved to a building across the road from the Paterson Building. And several months later most of the institute was relocated to Alderley Park – a leading life science facility and the UK’s largest R&D campus of this kind.

But then the pandemic hit. In line with government guidance, researchers across the UK couldn’t attend their labs for weeks and later, social distancing guidelines meant only small numbers of scientists could return at any one time.

Finally, though, Fabrizio completed his PhD and published his work in the high-impact journal Cell Reports earlier this year. “It felt amazing to finish,” says Fabrizio. “It took longer than usual, but my experience at the institute was the best it could have been.”

A smooth transition

Fabrizio began looking for postdoctoral positions to continue his research and soon he came across Professor Paola Scaffidi’s lab at the Crick. Professor Scaffidi’s team are studying how the process of epigenetics can be hijacked by cancer cells, allowing them to thrive. “I saw she’d published papers in journals like Nature and Science, focusing on how the loss of function of epigenetic regulators can affect cancer cell behaviour,” Fabrizio explains. “I thought, that’s exactly what I want to do!”

Fabrizio’s training in Manchester had prepared him well for the next step in his career. He made a smooth transition into postdoctoral life at the Crick, which Cancer Research UK supporters helped to build with a collective contribution of £100 million. Many continue to support its work today and we’ve welcomed new supporters over the past five years who have been attracted to the Crick’s unique approach to scientific collaboration in pursuit of discoveries about human health and disease.

“The pandemic has shown what’s possible when we come together and invest in science” – Fabrizio Simeoni

We’re delighted Fabrizio will remain part of the Cancer Research UK community. “The best thing about the Crick is the diverse research, from studies on influenza to brain diseases,” he says. “This gives you exposure to different aspects of biology that might be useful to your own research, as well as the opportunity to collaborate.”

Underlying Fabrizio’s journey with us is philanthropic funding, and he is immensely grateful to our supporters. “Research can’t happen without funding,” he emphasises. “The pandemic has shown us what’s possible when people come together and invest in science. With funding, we can accelerate progress, which means new and better treatments for people with cancer.”