March 8, 2021

Smashing Stereotypes

Karen Miller

I have been passionate about science and medicine ever since I can remember. When I was six, I made my first major scientific discovery and announced that the earth is flat. After all, how could the earth be round – because if you lived at the South Pole you would fall off and be carried off into space. My father, recognising he had a budding scientist in the family helped me to understand that even though things can appear obvious, a scientist should put forward a hypothesis and test it thoroughly. A few months later, I declared the earth is round as I had discovered gravity and now knew why people don’t fly off into space - and so, my career as a scientist was born.   

My first set back came on my first day at school. I arrived home in tears because the teacher had said, “No Karen, you can’t do science classes. Only boys do science, and you are a girl. You will be doing needlework instead.”  The following morning, I was late for school and I can remember my mother calling me to hurry up. I eventually came downstairs, and she burst out laughing when she saw me wearing my younger brother’s trousers and jumper. “Now I look like a boy so I can do science,” I said. Fiercely protective of her little girl, my mother spent months trying to reverse the decision, and in the end was successful. I was told I could sit at the back in the science class as long as I didn’t say anything to disturb the boys’ concentration. I can now look back at that time with considerable satisfaction as I came top of the class in every science exam. 

Always fascinated by cells and how they work together in a human body, I read every book and journal I could. Who could not be amazed that there are 35 trillion cells and more than 200 types of cells in a human body? The more I learned, the more I yearned to know. I am, to this day, in awe of the cell and how it functions, communicates and cooperates to make a human being.  

In my formative years, studying the immune system and recognising its complexity and importance, opened up a lifelong career path in studying human disease and working in drug discovery. Developing new medicines from early research through to clinical trials and ultimately the market is surely one of the best feelings and senses of achievement I have ever experienced. To have contributed to medicines that make a big difference to patients’ lives is as good as it gets.  

The power of the immune system to protect the human body when under threat by invading pathogens, and to regulate human tissue homeostasis can too often be overturned by a threat to human life when the immune system is dysregulated. This is especially important in cancer, as the immune system has a critical role in preventing and fighting the disease, with damaged and dysfunctional cells being deleted and safely disposed of in our bodies on a daily basis. The problem is that cancers can evade or escape the immune response, and even subvert it to help the cancer cells to grow and metastasize.

We have all known family members or friends who have succumbed to cancer. Watching a loved one going through repeated surgical procedures and multiple rounds of toxic chemotherapy, only to die of the disease is one of the hardest of life’s lessons. Although fiercely protective of me, I felt despair at not being able to protect my mother. 

That’s why I am full of hope for the new era in cancer immunotherapy. Enhancing the body’s already powerful immune system to recognize, target and kill cancer cells, and to overcome cancer immune evasion mechanisms, is now becoming a reality.  Here at Adaptimmune, we are at the forefront of adoptive T-cell therapy for people with solid tumors, and we are so close to achieving our goal of bringing a new cell therapy to the market, enabling us to change the lives of people with cancer.  We are just ordinary people, but by working together we are doing extraordinary things. This is all the drive and motivation I need, and I am proud and privileged to be working with you all.