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Interview

Oncology award to CCBIO postdoc

Henrica Werner received the 2015 Young Researcher Award from Onkologisk Forum. "The hope to give patients the for them correct treatment from the start, avoiding unnecessary side effects and ‘right-treatment delay’ in future through development of both prognostic and predictive biomarkers is what drives me", says the CCBIO postdoc and gynaecologist in an interview.

Portrait of Henrica Werner
Henrica Werner

Onkologisk Forum awards annually a research prize to a young researcher. The candidate must be a cancer researcher working with basal, clinical, epidemiological or translational research and provide research of high quality. The winner must be under 40 years of age and generally have finished his/her PhD. The prize money should be used for research, equipment or an educational journey.

Ung Forsker-prisen from Onkologisk Forum is meant to stimulate young researchers. How has receiving the award stimulated you in your work?

"Receiving the prize helped me to become more confident, trusting I am on the right track and eager to take up new challenges.

It also made me reflect over the way I took to get here. It was professor Salvesen who invited me into her research group back in 2010 to embark upon a PhD project. She was besides my mentor a role model for me as how to perform research. She helped me to understand, to grow, to collaborate. The Ung forsker pris from Onkologisk forum reflects very much her mentorship and I feel I had only just begun to learn from her when she suddenly passed away. In addition the prize reflects our whole research group, who without exception have always tried to help and make one another’s projects the best possible and without whom I would never have received the prize."

Could you tell us about your research, and what drives you?

"I am a gynaecologist, subspesialising in gynae-oncology. This clinical background, meeting the needs of the patients and realising the gaps in our knowledge on a daily basis, signifies a strong motivation for me to do research. We know that, at present, we cannot direct both our surgical and medical treatments well enough, as some patients would not have required such extensive treatment as they received whilst others actually needed more aggressive treatment instead. As an example up to 50% of our endometrial cancer patients do not respond to the chemotherapy treatment we offer them, especially in the recurrent situation. We know even before we start, that 1 out of 2 patients will not respond but does get side effects, some of them everlasting;  but we lack the right tools to select the right patients for the right drugs. Another example, we remove lymph nodes in higher risk endometrial cancer patients, since the lymph node status helps us to better predict a patient’s prognosis. It is a procedure known to cause chronic problems in over 10% of patients. If this procedure could be avoided and the same information obtained non-invasively, and we hope to show we can reduce the percentage of lymphadenectomy safely with our Momatec2 study; this would be of enormous benefit to our patients. The hope to give patients the for them correct treatment from the start, avoiding unnecessary side effects and ‘right-treatment delay’ in future through development of both prognostic and predictive biomarkers is what drives me."

Your group, in connection with the award, says that you are a great example of a clinician who builds bridges towards basic research. What are your thoughts on that?

"Basic research, using realistic preclinical models, is needed to understand the altered pathways and feedback loops that occur during cancerous development and discover promising biomarkers before moving them to the clinic. At the same time, when biomarkers do not perform in the clinic as hoped, basic research can help us to find the answers. The constant dynamics between clinical and basic research is the exciting world of translational science where I feel I can use both my clinical competences and my research knowledge best."

What is the most important thing you have learned as a researcher?

"I think it has taught me to be critical more often, be curious always, and realise that no questions are 'stupid questions'. In addition I have learnt that the best research is a team job."

How do you look upon CCBIO's intentions of even more comprehensive international network and collaboration, and what does international collaboration mean to you?

"International collaboration is extremely exciting and a stimulus to move the field further. Norway is a relatively small country and as such it is even more important to link yourself to bigger brothers and sisters. As the Bergen gynecologic cancer research group, which is the group in CCBIO I know best, we are fortunate to have good collaborations with large institutes in the US, in Europe and Australia. Using the best qualities from yourself and your collaborators results in high quality research and publications in high-ranked journals. The high percentage of foreign speakers at the CCBIO seminars and the annual symposium also reflects this view in my opinion. Having said this, it is of course not less important to invest and collaborate intensively at the local level, where we have built up a lot of quality within CCBIO and UiB and where lines are much shorter."

"Speaking for myself, there has never been no international focus. Born and raised in the Netherlands I took my specialist training in the Netherlands and the UK and first came to Norway as a consultant gynaecologist. Here I took my PhD in the Bergen gynaecologic cancer research group. During my PhD I was very fortunate to spend a year in Houston, at MD Anderson Cancer Center , where I was taken up seamlessly in their systems biology team and allowed to join on a number of projects. I look forward to spend more time there during my postdoctoral fellow period."

What are your plans for further research?

"I am responsible for our recently started MoMaTEC2 study together with professor Trovik who currently leads our group. Momatec2 is a translational multinational study where we study both a prognostic and predictive biomarker for their performance in the clinic. We hope the results of this study will help us to move towards more individualised treatment for endometrial cancer patients."

"My postdoctoral fellowship is otherwise focused on pathway activation and deactivation with an emphasis on proteomic analyses using reverse phase protein array (RPPA), a high-throughput protein platform I learnt about in Houston. Hopefully this can help to hint at new strategies for targeting endometrial cancer after disease progression."

 

We congratulate Henrica, and look forward to following her continuing carreer!

Also read article in Onko-Nytt about the 2015 winner (in Norwegian).