Ground-breaking cancer research

Date Published: 21.08.2018

Wadham Associate Professor, Monika Gullerova, on cancer research, bio-markers and babies.

“We look at the cancer cells and see what went wrong and how the environment gives other cancer cells an advantage or disadvantage,” says Dr Monika Gullerova, Associate Professor in Experimental Pathology and Tutor of Medicine at Wadham.

“Ultimately, we would love to make new discoveries which would lead to the development of new therapies and diagnostic tools for cancer involving RNA,” (Ribonucleic Acid) she explains.

“Parts of the RNA molecules can be very, very small,” she adds, “and these could be excreted from the cells, acting as bio markers,” giving scientists a measurable indicator of a change within a molecule.

Monika is a Senior Cancer Research Fellow carrying out work, in the relatively new field of RNA dependent DNA damage repair pathways, which she hopes could lead to new therapies and diagnostics for cancer.

“My family wanted me to become a doctor, but I wanted to do something more creative,” says Monika, of her decision to study natural sciences as a teenager.

Monika’s undergraduate experiments on Breast Cancer gene therapy at the Comenius University in Slovakia captured her imagination. Post-communist economic complications and lack of funding for science meant her academic prospects were not good in her native country, and so she headed to Vienna for her PHD where she worked on DNA transcription regulation.

It was at this point that Oxford molecular biologist, Nick Proudfoot, came across the young Slovakian and asked her to come to Oxford. Gullerova took him up on the offer and, after post-doctoral stints at Kyoto and Harvard, studying what she describes as “basic elementary science (how transcription and gene silencing works),” she headed to Oxford in 2006, where her work on RNA regulation, and particularly gene silencing and cohesion, began.

Gullerova published three important papers with Proudfoot and shortly afterwards was awarded the L’Oreal/Unesco Women in Science Award. This recognition, together with her high profile scientific publications, helped her gather funding, via the MRC’s Career Development Award, to set up her own laboratory in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology.

The Gullerova Lab team’s research focus is on RNA molecules in normal and cancer cells. Currently, the laboratory is specifically looking at DNA repair pathways and the roles of RNA molecules in this environment. 

"Ultimately, we would love to make discoveries which would lead to the development of new therapies and diagnostic tools for cancer involving RNA."

Dr Monika Gullerova

Monica’s success is also an interesting feminist tale. Her experience, balancing the pressures of high-level scientific study with pregnancy, birth and the early years of her, now one-year-old, daughter Charlotte’s life, has led her to reflect on motherhood, women and academia.

“I interviewed for the Associate Professorship when I was five months pregnant and for the CR UK fellowship when Charlotte was 2 months old and I got both,” she says. This was a difficult time for Monika, who suggests that it is hard for women scientists to balance the pressures of the Lab with family life. However, Monika believes that things are on the up: “there are still far fewer women than men, especially at senior levels but it is getting better." Monika is particularly impressed with progress in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, which holds Silver Athena SWAN award – an initiative developed to make research environments more conducive to family life.

But it’s an exciting time to be a woman in cancer research. “We have several stories in progress that we hope to publish in next couple of years," says Gullerova. "They describe early events in DNA damage response pathways, in particular transcription and its regulation," she adds.

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