Dr Anabel Martinez Lyons on a rare type of carcinoma that develops in the bile ducts

She talks about the rare type of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma, how one of the biggest challenges in her research is that patients are often diagnosed at a late stage with locally advanced or metastatic cancer, the excitement of her work exploring how our bodies function in health and disease, and an inspiring research expedition in deep-sea volcanic ecosystems in the Southwest Pacific in which she participated.

Anabel Martinez Lyons

Anabel is a Cancer Research UK-funded postdoctoral Research Fellow in Dr. Luke Boulter's group at the Institute of Genetics and Cancer. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and has a research background in human molecular genetics and biomedical science.

Anabel's current project focuses on understanding how bile ducts in the adult liver grow, become damaged and form cancer. To do this, she uses a variety of cell and mouse models as well as advanced microscopy techniques. In addition to her own research, Anabel enjoys teaching postgraduate students how to design and perform experiments to answer their scientific questions.

Could you briefly summarise your work?

I study bile duct cancer, called cholangiocarcinoma, and seek to understand how it develops in the adult liver. The bile ducts are biological tubes that function to collect and transport bile (a digestive fluid) from the liver, where it is made into the gut where it helps to break down our food. I am investigating which cellular processes and genetic changes are responsible for bile duct cancer formation.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people's lives?

Cholangiocarcinoma affects about 1 in 100,000 people worldwide. Although rare, it is a particularly aggressive, fast-growing, and chemoresistant cancer that is often diagnosed at a late stage. Due to a combination of these factors and the fact that there are currently very few targeted treatment strategies, the majority of cholangiocarcinoma patients die within five years of diagnosis. My research is important to find out which genes or proteins might be good diagnostic and therapeutic targets for this cancer.

What are the major challenges in your field?

One of the biggest challenges in cholangiocarcinoma research is that patients with locally advanced or metastatic cancer are often diagnosed very late. This means that it is difficult to find human samples that show us what is happening early in the cancer's development. Our lab has developed mouse and organoid models and advanced imaging techniques that help us overcome this obstacle and study what happens to bile duct cells in the earliest stages of bile duct cancer formation.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I was encouraged to become a scientist by my high school chemistry and biology teachers, and by my parents, who always supported me to attend science-based camps and academic courses whenever the opportunity arose. During high school, I volunteered in a lab during the summers, and the scientists there inspired me to choose research as a career.

What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

I really love the problem-solving nature of being a scientist. There is no better feeling for me than figuring out how our bodies work in both health and disease. Every day is a little different, and that's what makes my work so exciting. 

My least favourite thing is when an experiment fails for technical reasons and I can not figure out why!

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I would like to have tea with Venki Ramakrishnan, who is not only an extraordinary scientist, but also a strong advocate of collaboration between scientists in different countries and the exchange of scientific ideas. During his time as president of the Royal Society, he has been vocal about how a no-deal Brexit would negatively impact scientific research, and I would love to discuss that with him.

Anabel Martinez Lyons

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

I was once invited to join a research expedition as a scientist to study biodiversity in deep-sea volcanic ecosystems in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. I spent several weeks on a huge naval vessel with built-in laboratories and was able to explore an incredibly remote part of the world - it was really inspiring!

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

I would have probably tried to become a detective or a forensic scientist!

Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

Yes - research and contact scientists who are researching a topic or using techniques that you would like to learn more about. Try to listen to them talk about their work and, if possible, shadow or visit them in their lab. There is no better way to find out if a life in science is right for you than to talk to people in your desired field/career.

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help?

I think that the aging of the population poses many medical (and economic) challenges in terms of health management and health care. Scientific research in health management and targeted disease treatment is one way to address this problem. Another is scientific innovations such as novel biotechnologies and affordable therapeutics that will enable people to live well and comfortably into old age.

Related Links

Anabel Martinez Lyons profile

Luke Boulter Research Group

Boulter Lab