Dr Shom Goel is a Group Leader in the Cancer Research Division and a Consultant Oncologist in the Department of Medical Oncology at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Victoria.
Shom will be speaking about therapy-induced senescence in cancer in our online Epigenetics seminar this month. He chatted to us recently about his life and his work.
Thank you Dr Goel!
What brought you to the world of epigenetics and cancer? Can you tell us a little about your career journey?
I began my career by training as a medical oncologist, learning how to take care of cancer patients, and my journey into research actually began after that. I now work as a clinician-scientist, combining clinical practice and laboratory research. There is a logical and intimate connection between these two parts of my job: the questions I ask in the lab are typically inspired by the challenges I see my patients facing, and we strive to bring our lab findings back to patients in the form of new therapies.
For a long time, I have been struck by the extent to which clinical oncologists rely on DNA sequencing to understand various aspects of cancer biology – for example, mechanisms of drug resistance. However, in many cases – breast cancer is a good example – this sequencing hasn’t provided insights that have helped most patients. I have a strong sense that many therapies we give in the clinic cause exert their effects in part by remodelling the cancer cell epigenome, and that this in turn might explain key mechanisms of response or resistance to therapy.
In your career to date, of what are you most proud?
On a day-to-day basis, I am most proud of the moments when I have been able to genuinely help patients who are experiencing real distress. For example, when I have a very young patient, perhaps facing life’s end, and I can spend time with them or do little things to help them navigate that part of life —it’s a good feeling to be able to help in that way.
On a broad scale, seeing some of our research findings translate into global clinical trials has been immensely satisfying. My hope is that with the advances we’re making in the lab, more therapeutic options will available in the clinic, which will reduce the numbers of patients and families facing these challenges.
Can you tell us about a something happening in your lab right now that you’re excited about working on?
Right now, I’m very interested in the topic of cellular senescence. In particular, we are focused on therapy-induced senescence in cancer. We know that many cytotoxic or cytostatic therapies can induce a senescence-like state in cancer cells, and we also know that those senescent cells can fuel drug resistance over time. At the moment, we’re creating new in vitro and in vivo models of senescence in the lab, with the goal of discovering new therapies to target these senescent cells.
Would you like to tell us a little about the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre?
Peter Mac is the largest dedicated cancer research hospital in Australia, and in my opinion, one of the best cancer research hospitals in the world. It’s a unique institute because it combines top level clinical care with cutting edge research, and that research covers the full spectrum from fundamental biology right through to clinical trials and health services research. Peter Mac is located in the heart of Melbourne’s Biomedical Precinct and is linked to the University of Melbourne as well. So, for an academic clinician-scientist like me, I couldn’t think of a better place to be based.
If funding and time were unlimited, what dream project would you like to develop?
If resources were unlimited, I would like to devote my energies to finding new ways to kill senescent cancer cells or mitigate their adverse consequences. Indeed, that’s what we are already working on!
Outside your own lab, what research or technological developments in the field are you excited about?
While we’ve known about senescence for a long time, the recognition that it is a very important topic is quite recent: Cancer Research UK and the NIH declared senescence as one of their nine cancer grand challenges for the first time this year. This recognition from the scientific community is very motivating, and recent scientific developments in this area have really captured my attention. In particular, I have been excited by a recent group of papers describing novel ways to eradicate senescent cancer cells.
How important has collaboration been to your research and your career?
Collaboration has been invaluable. I trained first as a clinician and then re-trained as a laboratory scientist, and my research career has covered a number of fields including kinase signalling, immunology and epigenetics. Each time I’ve moved into a new area I’ve benefited from having a network of expert collaborators. Indeed, I’m fortunate to have a very broad network in Australia, and I’ve also retained close links with former colleagues overseas.
Strong collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry has also been vital to me. It is this that has really allowed me to take findings in the lab and move them all the way into phase III clinical trials.
Can you give us any advice for early career biomedical researchers?
In order to have a long-term career in academic biomedical research, it is important that you are interested in what you’re studying and that you’re curious by nature. If you don’t feel that passion and inherent curiosity about your work, then I would encourage you to look inwards to find out why that is, and to search for a research opportunity that you can be more passionate about.
Outside of work, what do you like to do?
We have three kids under three at home, so every moment of non-work time is spent with them. I have a two-year old son and twin baby girls. But when I do have time, my other interests are cooking and everything about food in general – I can happily spend hours in the kitchen dreaming up new dishes.