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Meet the researcher - Professor Alan Parker

Professor Alan Parker is a Cancer Research Wales researcher who is currently being funded for work at Cardiff University on pancreatic cancer. We asked him a series of questions to learn more about his life-changing work and the reasons behind his studies.

1. What area of cancer research do you focus on?

We focus on the development of new treatments for cancers. Our research is based largely on the use of viruses – understanding how they infect healthy cells to make us sick and using that information to engineer viruses that can infect only cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed. In a nutshell, we develop ‘smart viruses’ which hunt out and destroy cancer cells and, as a consequence, help the immune system to ‘see’ the tumour.

2. What is your Cancer Research Wales project aiming to do in that area?

Our current project is focussed on pancreatic cancer – a cancer type which often has a very poor prognosis. Our technology uses an ‘Achilles heel’ of pancreatic cancer – a specific marker that is found uniquely on the surface of pancreatic cancer cells but not normal cells. Our ‘smart virus’ can latch onto this marker to infect cancer cells. Once inside the cancer cells, the virus can kill them, but it has also been engineered to produce a protein, which coverts a harmless chemical called 5-FC into an extremely toxic agent called 5-FU, that also kills cancer cells. As a result, this ‘smart virus’ will not only directly kill cancer cells, but can also aid the use of certain drugs, making this cancer significantly more treatable.

3. Have there been any key achievements in the project?

During the first 12 months of our project, we have developed the relevant ‘smart virus’ for this project and tested it in cells grown in the lab, demonstrating proof of the principle. Next, we need to look at pancreatic cancer tissues grown directly from patients’ own tumours to see if the same results can be achieved.

4. Why did you become a Cancer Research Wales researcher?

Cancer Research Wales fund some of the most cutting-edge cancer research going on here in Wales. They have been integral to helping me develop technologies that have a real prospect of being tested in patients in the next few years. Being supported by Cancer Research Wales has been and remains pivotal to our research programme. Having witnessed how hard the team work to raise funds, I can say it is a total honour to have our work funded by them.

5. Do you have a personal connection to cancer?

Yes, very much so – like many of us working in cancer research! I lost my mother to the disease when she was just 50. I was 17 at the time. There’s no doubt that this was pivotal in defining my career ambitions. It’s very easy to feel bitter and robbed that my mother died relatively young, and never got to meet her grandkids, but I try to feel more positively about it. She actually first had breast cancer when she was 40, when I was 7. Without those medicines developed at the time, she wouldn’t have seen her kids grow to adulthood. For me of course, the difference between losing a mother at 7 compared to 17 is huge, and I am so grateful that the drugs gave me the time to get to know my mother. So, I have always wanted to try and do my bit, and hope that one day what we develop might help keep loved ones together for longer.

6. Is there anything you'd like to say to our supporters?

Only how much their support means – not just to me and my group, but hopefully to reassure them that their support and fundraising will ultimately make a huge difference in helping more people survive cancer. On behalf of all my team, I would like to offer a huge thank you for all you do and ask you to keep up the amazing work! Diolch yn fawr!