First appointment to Aberdeen's £4.5million cancer research team

The University of Aberdeen has made its first major appointment as part of its £4.5million campaign to install a world class cancer research team.

Professor Valerie Speirs specialises in breast cancer and joins the University as Chair in Molecular Oncology from the University of Leeds.

One of Professor Speirs’ key areas of research interest is male breast cancer – a relatively under-researched area.

Between 350 and 400 men are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the UK, compared to 55,000 women.

“I published results of a study comparing male and female breast cancers in 2017,” Professor Speirs says.

“Currently breast cancer in men is treated exactly the same way as it is in women. While superficially the disease looks similar in both males and females, when you look at the genetics, there are differences. These differences could well be exploited to give more specific treatments for men.

“Men tend to present later and so the condition is a bit more advanced which makes it more difficult to treat. But if you compare men and female survival rates they are very similar if they present at the same time.”

In addition to male breast cancer, Professor Speirs works on developing models to study breast cancer that use human tissue and therefore does not require animal testing.

“I am not against animal testing and often it is the best option available to us. But as scientists I feel we are bound to look for more bespoke models that are closer to the human condition,” she says.

The other focus of Professor Speirs’ work is in identifying biomarkers – measurable biological indicators - of breast cancer which can help teams treating patients to decipher how the disease is likely to progress, and treat it accordingly.

“We are fortunate to have the Grampian Biorepository which gives us a fantastic amount of archival human material and Professor Steve Heys has also built up a great collection over the years. These allow us to look at particular molecules that are expressed in cells and associate that with outcomes which can perhaps be used in future for pathologists and the teams that are treating the patients.”

As chance would have it, it was an article in the University’s alumni magazine Voice that first alerted Professor Speirs to the potential of returning to her alma mater as a researcher.

“I was quite happy at Leeds and happened to see the feature in the alumni magazine outlining the vision for a new cancer team. I called Professor Heys and it all took off from there, and now here I am!

“We are all working together to put Aberdeen on the map as a centre of excellence in cancer research but it’s not just about the next five years or so, we want to create a legacy, something that undergraduate students here right now can look at and say, ‘I want to be part of that research when I graduate’.”