Interview Series: Dr Lucy Stead on the new Leeds brain tumour Research Tissue Bank

The University of Leeds recently announced that it would be jointly hosting the Leeds Neuropathology Research Tissue Bank, a dedicated brain tumour tissue bank for research in the city, along with Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

The Tissue Bank facility – which will encourage collaboration in collecting, conserving and examining samples – is being funded for three years by OSCAR’S Paediatric Brain Tumour Charity and Yorkshire’s Brain Tumour Charity.

The project is coordinated by Dr Lucy Stead, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, Head of Glioma Genomics with the Leeds Institute of Medical Research at St James’s Hospital, and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow.

On the back of this promising new development for brain tumour research in Yorkshire and beyond, Leading Healthcare got in touch with Dr Stead to find out more.

Here she tells us all about her research, her hopes for the new Leeds Tissue Bank and why NHS staff and clinicians play such a pivotal part in her work.

Hi Lucy, tell us about the background of the Leeds Neuropathology Research Tissue Bank

“I am a brain cancer biologist and the work within my group really focuses on one type of brain cancer, glioblastoma, and specifically why it tends to recur. We don’t have very effective treatments for this particular brain cancer.

“The work within my group is focused on what we call molecular profiling of actual brain tumour samples. So, effectively, that means taking the samples from the patient and applying really cutting-edge scientific techniques to dissect and understand the cells within that tumour.

“This leads to ideas about what might be causing that cancer or allowing it to resist treatment, so we then need to be able to model this in some way in our experiments. Wherever possible we want our models to be based on the human condition. So, one thing that you can do, when you have patient samples, is actually grow them effectively in test tubes.

“Historically in Leeds, we used to collect brain tumour samples but it’s a really hard thing to do; there’s a lot of infrastructure that has to be set up. You have to be able to adequately inform and consent patients, make sure they’re fully aware of what’s going on and that they give their full, informed approvals.

“But then also, of course, we have to work with surgeons, nurses, doctors to get the samples and in no way interrupt what they’re doing. And then we need to speak to pathologists, who tell us more about the samples, and to collect them and store them in ways that mean we can do as much science with them as possible.

“And that also requires tracking, we want to be able to annotate them with clinical meta data – we want to know a bit more about the disease, so the samples can be allocated to the right types of research. And, of course, we have to store them in freezers, or embed them in fixative, and for active research projects we have to grow them.

“As I said, we used to collect samples but as funding diminished, it stopped. Because my work, especially, is based on the need for patient tissues, I decided to champion an initiative to get us up and running again – and actually bigger and better.

“So, [the idea was] to develop a Leeds neuro-pathology research tissue bank where we could collect any brain tumour, not just the one I work on, but any occurring in adults and also in children when we can. And [then] store them in the best possible way and use them for as much research as possible.

“We’ve been reviewed by NHS Ethics [Service] and they’ve given us a favourable opinion. This means we now have the possibility, in-house, to review and approve all the science going on in Leeds, and outside, and give them access to this – what we hope to be the best possible collection of tissue, well-characterised for use in research.”

Do you collaborate with areas outside of Leeds?

“The Tissue Bank is Leeds – and that’s because we need to set the infrastructure up specifically pertaining to how it works in Leeds, where the surgeries take place, where the pathologists do their review etc.

“But we absolutely have reached out to other tissue banks, specifically in the North West. There are two – in Preston and Liverpool – which are fantastic sources of tissue, too. So we have liaised with them, to align with their processes but also in the hopes that when someone applies to our tissue bank, we can contact them and make the process easier for researchers; to ensure across all of the banks that we can provide what’s required for that person.”

How has the pandemic impacted the process of setting up the Tissue Bank?

“We were due to start our setup in March of 2020, which of course is when the metaphorical bomb dropped. What we didn’t want to do was proceed with hiring someone to run [Leeds Tissue Bank] at the time when the hospitals were understandably diverted with COVID-19.

“So, we actually paused setup entirely and started again in January of this year – a full 10 month’s delay in being able to get set up.

“There was always going to be a slight delay before we could get our first samples. But this latest lockdown has meant the NHS has had to reconfigure again to make themselves prepared, unfortunately we haven’t yet been able to take our first sample, which we had hoped to start doing. We don’t think that’s going to be a big delay though, as things are very different this time.”

What are your hopes for the Tissue Bank for the rest of 2021?

“The hope is that we will be able to collect every single brain tumour that is surgically removed in Leeds and consented by patients. We will have the resource and the infrastructure to do that.

“Not only will we be able to collect samples, though, we will also be able to work with some of the experts all across the UK in developing these models for brain cancer research.

“Specifically, we have a side-pot of money, as it were, for developing paediatric brain cancer cell lines; this is an area where there needs to be a lot of input because, thankfully, these tumours are rare. But their rarity means that we have a lack of models for widespread use. So, we’re really hoping to be able to join into a large collaborative effort to get those models developed and characterised in Leeds.

“We will be open to researchers within Leeds, but also nationwide and even outside of the UK. We have procedures in place that [mean] anybody, really can apply for tissue and [we want] to start facilitating as much research into brain cancer, as possible.”

What else are you working on at the moment?

“First and foremost, I’m a researcher, I run a research group. I have PhD students, technicians, and postdoctoral fellows, and we’re working currently on a portfolio of about seven distinct research projects. But all are under the umbrella of one main focus: that is, to understand why glioblastoma – which is the most common and the most deadly form of adult brain cancer – almost always recurs following treatment.

“This is a horrendous disease, it kills more people in their 40s than any other cancer, and it is simply because it is currently deemed incurable. And we want to get to the bottom of why.

“So we have multiple, multi-faceted approaches and we’re here to work with teams. We don’t work in isolation – we’re part of global collaborations to really try and profile the tumours when they first occur, but also when they grow back; to understand why those cells survived and develop ways to stop them.

“[In relation to the Tissue Bank] we believe our research is more impactful if we can apply what we’re doing to actual human tissue.”

What are the main challenges to your research?

“It’s a slightly painful thing sometimes as a scientist – because you have these great ideas, but understandably then you have to go and convince other people of their greatness.

“I started moving to independence in 2013, so seven years later I finally got my big break. I won a large grant last year from the UKRI, which is called a Future Leaders Fellowship and that is now hopefully going to mean that we can start working.

“It’s a lot of time and effort…trying to get the money to do the research. And sometimes you just want to get on and do it. So, we feel very happy now.

“The biggest bottleneck has been [funding] – especially in brain cancer research. Historically, they’ve received the smallest part of cancer research funding. We’ve worked very closely with charities like Yorkshire’s Brain Tumour Charity and OSCAR’S Paediatric Brain Tumour Charity, who are the local charities funding the whole of the research tissue bank.”

Why do you think this area is so hard to secure funding for?

“I would say that there are two main reasons. A lot of cancer research in the UK in funded through charity means. And, thankfully, this is a rare cancer but what that means is then that you have potentially less members of the public that are aware of it. Many charities are from patients themselves, who have experienced cancer and want to raise money specifically for the cancer that’s affected them.

“The second thing, and the reason that really attracted me to coming into brain cancer research – maybe making me a glutton for punishment – is that I think it’s the most complex cancer. I think the brain is arguably the most complex organ of the human body, and therefore, diseases of the brain are some of the hardest to understand and cure.

“In some forms of brain cancer, unfortunately, we have not seen a change in survival for 20 years. It’s a less attractive area for some funders, because it starts to feel intractable.

“But, actually, we are making progress – really good progress. Funding has improved over recent years, partly because of Dame Tessa Jowell [the late and former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2017], and so I think we’re going to see some big breakthroughs. And I want to be part of that – and the Tissue Bank is absolutely a big part of that.”

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about the Tissue Bank?

“I think of myself, really, as the person who’s championed this and tried to act as the coordinator. But there is a huge team of people that have really worked together to try and make this happen.

“And at the forefront of that is the clinicians; the clinicians who deal with the patients and help to get the funding for research nurses, who we need on the NHS side to consent those patients. The surgeons who, of course, have to actually coordinate with us to get the tissue, and the pathologists who annotate it.

“I should make mention of Professor Susan Short, who is an academic oncologist in Leeds, and the most senior person in our department who has been instrumental into getting the funding from the NHS…to help set this up from the research nurse side. Also, Mr Ryan Matthew, who is an academic neurosurgeon, who is liaising with all of the neurosurgical teams at Leeds to make sure that this can happen.

“We get so much help from that side [clinical, healthcare professionals] and then sometimes it feels like the communication fails to let them see how much it is impacting the research and what’s happening…once it passes that bridge [to us], we’re really making progress.”

Photo: Dr Lucy Stead, by the University of Leeds.