Q&A with new Associate Member Dr Katherine Antel

11 Aug 2023
11 Aug 2023

Associate Member Dr Katherine Antel

Why did you get into research? 
I am insatiably curious and love pushing the limits. These two traits drive many aspects of my life and are the primary reasons I pursue research. You know that familiar game 4-year-olds play, repeatedly asking "but why?" Well, I get to play it in real life, using it to delve deeper and gain understanding. I find immense satisfaction in the creative aspects of research, formulating the right questions to ask and devising ways to answer them. Packaging and presenting these ideas as grant applications further excites me. Moreover, writing plays a crucial role in my research journey as it allows me to express myself fully. Most importantly, my research career began with the generous support and encouragement of colleagues and mentors who believed in my ideas and ambitions.
Why specialise in targeted cancer therapy – what about this field piqued your interest?
In 2001, a groundbreaking moment shook the medical world as the first targeted therapy for cancer graced the front page of Times Magazine, bearing the title 'There is new ammunition in the war against cancer. These are the bullets.' This innovative drug marked the advent of tyrosine kinase inhibitors, providing hope for treating Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia, a type of blood cancer. Though its theme seemed reminiscent of science fiction, the underlying logic resonated with me, as I grasped the narrative behind targeting cancer cells driven by specific mutations. At that time, I was a medical student, and the profound ambition outlined in the article—the prospect of curing more cancers through targeted therapy—captivated me.”

What would you like people to know/understand that isn’t necessarily common knowledge about this area of work?
It is crucial for the general public to gain a fundamental understanding and vocabulary surrounding DNA and genes. Genetic testing is increasingly prevalent, including tests offered for ancestry purposes. However, misconceptions in this area can lead to harmful consequences. For instance, the misconception that an mRNA COVID vaccine can alter host DNA can cause unnecessary fear and concern. By fostering a basic knowledge of DNA and genes, individuals can make informed decisions and contribute to a more informed and responsible society.

How does your work practically impact society? 
Patients from Sub-Saharan Africa and those with HIV are currently underrepresented in the available genetic information related to lymphoma. Further defining the pathobiology in these patient groups holds the potential for crucial translational benefits. While targeted therapies have advanced lymphoma treatment in high-income countries, these options are not accessible in the public-sector healthcare environment of South Africa due to prohibitive costs of novel agents. However, the situation could change dramatically if we could identify with precision which patients would benefit the most. This way, the cost-benefit ratio and toxicity-benefit balance could significantly improve, making targeted therapies more feasible and promising for patients in this region.

Practically - what does the accolade of becoming an Associate Member, mean for your work?
The IDM stands as a prestigious research institute synonymous with excellence. As a member, I am embraced by a supportive environment that fosters personal growth and offers access to cutting-edge core facilities. The institute presents ample opportunities to collaborate with other esteemed members, enabling the development of local research initiatives. Moreover, being part of the IDM opens doors to seek funding for projects and encourages the exploration of interdisciplinary ventures.

What do you hope to achieve, career-wise, in the long term?    
My ultimate ambition in research is to create a direct and positive impact on patients' lives. My primary translational interest lies in harnessing the advancements in cell-free DNA or 'liquid biopsy' to revolutionize cancer detection and accurate diagnosis through peripheral blood analysis. As sequencing costs continue to decline, I envision that broad-based genetic testing will soon reach parity with current lymphoma subtyping and staging methods. Furthermore, as we approach the use of cfDNA for cancer screening, therapy response assessment, and relapse monitoring, I aspire to develop the capability to not only detect and diagnose cancers but also answer profound biological questions using cfDNA."

What do you enjoy about your work? 
I firmly believe in the power of big ideas and dreams, valuing them even if they may later face feasibility challenges. Embracing this mindset fuels my passion for pushing boundaries and exploring new possibilities. In my journey, I have witnessed a continuous growth curve, consistently learning and evolving in my work. As I gaze into the future, I recognize that there is an infinite realm of knowledge and experiences yet to be discovered. This awareness drives my dedication to pursuing lifelong learning and furthering my expertise, always seeking to make a meaningful impact."

One for the kids: Explain what you do to a five-year old: 
I've been a doctor for a long time, and I help people who are sick with blood problems and blood cancers. Lately, I've been studying why some patients with HIV get a certain type of cancer called lymphoma more often. It's like solving a puzzle to understand why this happens and how we can help them better."

Read more about Katherine here.