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Q&A with Dr Nekisa Zakeri, 3MT Finalist and Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Fellow

28 October 2020

Dr Nekisa Zakeri is a Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Fellow in the UCL Division of Infection and Immunity.

Nekisa Zakeri

Dr Zakeri's research, ‘The New Cells on the Block: removing the brakes for liver cancer therapy’, reached the final of the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) national competition, which asks Doctoral candidates to present their research in just three minutes. They have to use language appropriate to non-specialists, and only one single presentation slide to support them. Nekisa won the Faculty of Medical Sciences rounds, the UCL rounds, the national semi-finals, and was just one of six PhD students to reach the 3MT final.

We caught up with her to ask five quick questions:

Tell us briefly about your liver cancer research and what you discovered.

Liver cancer is the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related death in the UK. It is often detected at an advanced stage, with limited treatment options available. My research focusses on a population of unconventional immune cells, called gamma-delta T cells, which are exciting new candidates for cancer immunotherapies. I have found that these cells reside in the liver and possess strong anti-tumour properties, but appear to be dysfunctional in patients with liver cancer. I am currently exploring potential therapeutic strategies to target gamma delta T cells locally within the liver, in order to enhance their anti-tumour properties for patients with primary or secondary liver cancer.
 

They say that an 80,000-word thesis would take 9 hours to present, how did you tackle the challenge of fitting it into three minutes?

Presenting any research in such a short time-frame is not easy, but I was excited by the challenge. I decided to create a simple storyline incorporating the key take-home messages from my research so far, why I think it’s interesting, and how it fits into the bigger picture. After a lot of editing and rehearsing, I finally condensed it to within three minutes!
 

Why do you think the 3MT competition is so renowned in the world of academia?

The 3MT competition is a great initiative, challenging PhD students to captivate a non-specialist audience with their research. I think it is unique in bringing together early career researchers across a broad range of subject areas, with an emphasis on the value of science communication. It is a great way of demonstrating to the public that research can be fun, engaging, and easy to understand, as well as encouraging researchers to develop a concise ‘elevator pitch’ of their research that they can share with everyone.


What sparked your interest in liver cancer therapy?

As a hepatology clinician, I am cognisant of the exponential rise in chronic liver disease, and its sequela liver cancer, not only in the UK but on a global scale. Overall survival rates for patients with liver cancer remain low, and while current immune checkpoint inhibitors have revolutionised the treatment of some cancers, only a minority of patients with liver cancer respond. There is an urgent need for more effective therapies in this field, and investigating new strategies to harness the therapeutic potential of local immune cell populations within the liver presents a hugely promising avenue of ongoing research.
 

What do you think will be the big breakthroughs that we might see in your area of work in the longer term?

Personalised combinations of immunotherapies are likely to yield the greatest breakthroughs for liver cancer treatments. The development of non-invasive predictive biomarkers will be an exciting future prospect, both for the early detection of liver cancer, as well as helping to tailor specific immunotherapies to those patients most likely to respond. Finally, as with any disease, prevention is always better than cure, therefore public health initiatives to combat the rising prevalence of liver disease, particularly stemming from alcohol excess and obesity, will be vital.

 

Follow Dr Zakeri on Twitter at @nekisa_zakeri

Image taken at the 8th Dean’s Research Prize took place at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead on the 6th February 2020.