Inspiring Nottingham Research Fellows

Jennifer Ashworth is an Anne McLaren Research Fellow, working across the schools of Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine and Science 

Using biomaterials and 3D imaging to increase understanding of fibrotic diseases

Why did you apply for a fellowship? 

I wanted the freedom to be able to explore my own ideas, and to work with other researchers to make new discoveries. The freedom of this fellowship means that when I see a new opportunity or have a new idea, I can make that idea a reality. I’m also excited at the chance to learn new things and work with new people, for example I will be spending a few months at the Garvan Institute, Australia, to learn new 3D imaging methods for understanding the progression of fibrotic diseases, which is the focus of my fellowship.

Why Nottingham? 

Nottingham has a brilliant network of researchers and clinicians working on a range of fibrotic conditions from cancer to heart disease. As my research will develop new ways of studying these diseases using biomaterials science, this is the perfect environment to maximise the potential impact of my research. I also have the chance at Nottingham to hold a cross-school fellowship between the Vet School and the School of Medicine, meaning that my research can hopefully have future impact on both human and animal patients.

I wanted the freedom to be able to explore my own ideas, and to work with other researchers to make new discoveries.

How would you explain your research?

I create miniature replicas of fibrotic diseases in the lab, by mimicking the surroundings that our cells experience in the body. For example, as breast cancer progresses, the cells make their surroundings stiffer, which is one of the danger factors that can lead to cancer spread. Using biomaterials science, I can recreate this process in the lab, which can help us understand how to treat diseases like cancer. In my fellowship, I will use 3D imaging of healthy and diseased tissues, to understand what makes them different, how this changes between types of tissue and species, and how to recreate this in the lab. Eventually this approach could lead to personalised biomaterials that can predict the best treatment options for patients suffering from fibrotic diseases like cancer.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

I’ve been fascinated by biological materials ever since my first year of my undergraduate degree – learning about materials like spiders silk inspired me to change my degree from physics to materials science! From there I studied for a PhD in medical materials, where I designed soft collagen implants to help diseased ligaments to heal. At the end of my PhD I began to discover how medical materials could be used to help understand and treat diseases, and I jumped at the opportunity to start a postdoc in breast cancer research. It was a very steep learning curve as cancer research is very different from my materials science background, but it was the decision that made my career, and I hope that one day my interdisciplinary research will have a positive impact on patients’ lives.

How will your research affect the average person?

My research will help improve methods for finding new drugs to tackle diseases such as cancer, improving treatment options for patients. My ambition is that my research will eventually lead to a way of testing out different treatments for individual patients to predict which will be most effective for each person, giving them the best possible chance of recovery. 

What challenges are you hoping to tackle?

One key challenge I hope to tackle is the use of animal models in cancer research. This is both an ethical and a scientific problem, as using an animal to mimic a human can be misleading – a cancer drug that works in a mouse might not work in a human, and vice versa. I hope to develop biomaterials as alternatives to animal testing, and also work with the vet school to understand the differences between naturally -occurring diseases in different species.

What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?

Receiving this fellowship is a big highlight, but another of my best moments was receiving a highly commended award last year from the International 3Rs Prize. This award recognises work with major impact on reducing, refining or replacing animals in research (the 3Rs), and this was a huge honour as I am passionate about using animal-free methods to study cancer and other diseases.

Who or what has helped you get to where you are today?

I have been very lucky to have some excellent group leaders, who inspired and encouraged me to apply for this fellowship – particularly professors Cathy Merry and Anna Grabowska from Medicine, and Professor Nigel Mongan from the Vet School. As well as supporting my fellowship applications, they also helped me to apply for pilot grants, which gave me my first experience of leading my own research, and is something I’d definitely recommend to anyone interested in applying for a fellowship in the future.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Talk to as many people as possible - don’t be scared to approach people and ask for help. Be prepared to take all kinds of feedback on your research, but remember to believe in yourself and your ideas. Above all, focus on what you love and what interests you the most.

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