“Once you get into bone research it sucks you in,” says Professor Alison Gartland, gazing at a large and intriguing skull taking up most of the space on her office table.
She embarks on an impromptu guessing game to name the specimen’s origin, and bats off some increasingly unlikely suggestions before divulging the answer - is it a crocodile’s? Or a lion’s, perhaps?
All way off the mark - it’s from a hippo.
“When people think of bones they think of skeletons - something solid that you dig up - but it’s the most important organ in your body,” she says. “Without your bones you wouldn’t be who you are. For me, it’s fascinating.”
As the professor of bone and cancer biology at Sheffield University’s medical school, Alison’s days are spent studying the behaviour of this vital biological framework - and, in particular, the ways it can be affected by often deadly forms of cancer.
The academic leads a five-strong laboratory team, and has just been awarded a grant of nearly £200,000 by the charity Breast Cancer Now to fund research that aims to stop breast cancer spreading to the bone, one of the most common places for the disease to reach.
We always try and get involved with the charities we’re getting funded by, speak to the patients, raise money and hear people’s stories
“It’s kind of the standard grant we get,” says Alison.
“It’s not a lot of money, but it allows us to keep hacking away at these problems. We’re really interested in how cells can travel to other parts of the body, but don’t start to be a big tumour straight away, and what that involves. If we can understand it, hopefully we can target it and get the clever chemists to develop drugs to interfere with these processes.”
Her studies encompass prostate as well as breast cancer as once original, primary tumours have metastatised - spread and formed new growths - in bone, the conditions are normally incurable.
And there is a pressing need to examine osteosarcoma too, a rare cancer that normally affects children and young people, in which tumours start in the bone itself.
“Treatments for those haven’t changed in the past 30 years and survival rates are no different, either,” Alison says.
“It can slightly affect people in different ways - there might be gene issues behind it, but then there might not. Normally the current way it is treated is that they will cut out the primary tumour, often that amputating a leg, and then they’ll give chemotherapy. But the standard chemotherapy, a lot of the time, cells become resistant to. So it’s a particularly hardy cancer.”
Inside the nearby cell culture laboratory the extent of the studies is clear - the room is packed with incubators and cabinets filled with samples in bottles, vials and petri dishes.
Many tests are carried out on cells from hip bones in rats or humans, explains Alison, who admits that the nature of her job helps her stay - ‘to a certain extent’ - detached from the tragedies front-line doctors are faced with.
“When I did my A-levels I did think I wanted to be a medic. My grandparents were very ill at the time, terminally so, and I just thought there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this as a job - inform people that they’ve got months to live. So I ended up going down this route.”
Alison grew up in Birkenhead, on the Wirral, Merseyside, and from a young age was no stranger to the cruelty of illness. Her father died when she was aged five of a brain tumour, and as a teenager she lost her grandmother to lung disease and grandfather to throat cancer.
“He was a baker and confectioner all his life - I think it was the flour, a bit like coal miner’s lung.”
Alison, aged 44, lives on the outskirts of Wombwell, Barnsley, with her partner Kate, a supply teacher. Funny and good-natured, she jokingly claims to have ‘little spare time’, but enjoys camping, travel and walks with her American Bulldog. Motorbiking used to be a favourite pastime too, but she gave it up following a bad accident in the floods 10 years ago.
She was the first in her family to go to university - spurred on not by ‘good careers advice’ but simply through an encouraging ‘chance conversation’ with a PE teacher in a school corridor.
Alison turned down an offer to go to Durham - “A medical degree opens up a lot more things for you, but I wouldn’t change anything” - and instead studied biomedical science at Hallam University, later taking a PhD in Liverpool looking at the effect of a particular protein on bone.
“I didn’t have a particular interest in bone at that time - my mum needed a hip replacement and my aunt had osteoporosis but I didn’t really know anything about it. But I did the project and never looked back, really.”
She’s keen to offer a clearer career path to other potential researchers, though, and has carried out a lot of outreach work in the community since joining Sheffield University in 2006.
“And we always try and get involved with the charities we’re getting funded by, speak to the patients, raise money and hear people’s stories.
“We’re passionate about science but we have to be passionate about people, too, and how it’s going to help them in the end.
“I would say this, I’m biased, but I do think Sheffield is one of the best places in the UK for bone and cancer research.”
Research into killer disease
Professor Alison Gartland is doubtful that a cure for cancer can be found within her lifetime - but is hopeful that researchers can carry on boosting survival rates.
“There’s not one smoking gun or switch that says ‘You’re going to get cancer’ - the genetic studies have told us that,” she says.
“Having said that, we are getting better at detecting it to limit the effects.
“It used to be that if you had a diagnosis of primary breast cancer it’d be game over, but now so long as it’s detected early the outlook is actually quite good.”
In a previous study funded by Breast Cancer Now, Alison helped to discover that a molecule released by breast tumours called lysyl oxidase, or LOX, is responsible for making holes in bones that prepare or ‘prime’ bone for the arrival of breast cancer.
With the £200,000 she will investigate how a second molecule - P2X7R - interacts with LOX to help the disease’s spread.
“I’m still optimistic that we can make a difference,” she adds.