Gemma received her award on the 4th of December at the 5th annual University of Leeds Postgraduate Research Conference. This conference acts an annual showcase for high quality research being generated by the postgraduate community in Leeds. Researchers were judged on an ability to communicate their project to a non-specialist audience and demonstrate the potential impact of the work in both a social and economic setting.
Gemma’s research focuses on the use of novel and exciting imaging technology to identify the extent of colon cancer during surgery.
Colorectal cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK with over 41,000 new cases of diagnosed annually. Curative treatment currently involves radical surgery to remove the primary tumour, plus the nearby lymph nodes, which may contain disseminated cancer cells. This is despite only 30% of patients actually having cancer in the lymph nodes, meaning that some 70% of patients are over treated by radical surgery and subjected to an unnecessary risk of complications. This policy is determined by an inability to accurately diagnose cancerous lymph nodes before surgery; scans only have an accuracy of 50% – 70% for predicting lymph node spread. There is, therefore, an unmet clinical need to develop a strategy to accurately determine lymph node spread during surgery, so the extent of surgery can be tailored to the extent of cancer.
The research uses a naturally occurring substance, 5-Aminolevulinic Acid (5-ALA), which is selectively converted in cancer cells to a fluorescent molecule that glows red under blue light during surgery. This concept has been supported by laboratory research and has been translated into an early phase clinical trial. The aim of this research is to identify cancer cells in tissue surrounding the primary tumour in real time and remove it, but significantly to also identify where there is no cancer spread and spare patients this radical surgery, lessening the risk of complications, significantly improving quality of life after surgery and generating real cost benefits within the NHS.
Gemma graduated from the University of Liverpool with an Honours degree in Medicine in 2003 and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 2006. She is currently a Surgical Registrar and Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, based on the St James’ Campus where she is also a key member of the Colorectal Therapies HTC team.