Nearly half of the human genome is comprised of transposable elements (TEs) and virus-related sequences. TEs are a mobile class of virus-like genes that are expressed after viral infection and in cancer, but whether they have a role in these processes is poorly understood.
I investigate TE expression in cancer aiming to link it to inflammation and cancer outcomes. TEs activate an immune response in our bodies by mimicking viral infection and I hypothesise that TE are part of our evolved defense against cancer.
My work will help us understand whether our response to cancer is similar to our response to infection. I hypothesise that cancer is in some ways like infection and has driven an immune system arms race over evolutionary time scales in the same way as infection. As TE expression can be manipulated therapeutically, this research has the potential to underpin future therapeutic development to enhance natural and immunotherapy treatments.
My research is part of an exciting collaboration between UCL’s Department of Infection and the UCL Cancer Institute.
Our anti-cancer immunity
Existing scientific research suggests that our immune system can help protect us against cancer.
Through the examination of large cancer sequencing datasets, I will explore the relationship between TE expression and markers of innate immune activation and cancer outcome. My colleagues and I expect to find evidence that TEs activate inflammation, and that inflammation attracts immune cells which fight cancer.
Understanding cancer development and progression requires an evolutionary perspective because cancers evolve to escape our immune system. Cancers change their genetic code by mutation. This allows them to become invisible to natural immunity and resistant to current cancer therapies.
Although immune systems are complex and not fully understood, we are beginning to understand how to target them using immunotherapy. By enhancing our bodies’ natural defence mechanisms, we hope to revolutionise cancer care.
Evolutionary thinking in human health
My research is highly interdisciplinary. It connects infection research and anti-tumour mechanisms to demonstrate an immune system role for TEs in cancer. Understanding these processes not only holds the promise of better treatments for cancer, it could transform our understanding of how evolution plays a role in our response to disease.
I have always been interested in biodiversity and how organisms have evolved. For my Master’s degree, I studied new theories of SARS-CoV-2 evolution and delivered talks to diverse audiences. Much to my surprise, I noticed that even scientific audiences had misconceptions about evolutionary theory. This motivates me to continue to study evolution and share its application with academic and non-academic audiences alike.
After my PhD I plan to continue my academic career as a postdoc.
The EET scholarship has given me an invaluable opportunity to study for my doctoral degree at University College London as part of the Towers Lab. I am excited to be part of a collaborative network of young researchers working on evolution, and to become a better science communicator.
I want to introduce the next generation of scientists and the public to the beauty of evolutionary theory and how it helps us understand and predict the natural world.