My unexpected, unanticipated and surprising journey to brain tumour research

17 March 2014
Helen Fillmore, researcher at University of Portsmouth, taking part in a charity abseil

"When folks ask me why I do what I do, my simple answer is passion, a passion that stems from a love/hate relationship - I love the brain and I hate cancer."

Dr Helen Fillmore, PhD Cellular & Molecular Neuro-oncology from the School of Pharmacy & Biomedical Sciences (University of Portsmouth) shares her story.

Finding my way and 'discovering' the brain

...something beautiful happened. I discovered the brain and the central nervous system...The only reason I went beyond high school was due to receiving an athletic scholarship. The reason I stayed in university was to compete in sports and because my big sister begged me saying ‘don’t give up, you will find your career path’. I decided to major in psychology in hopes I would have enough credits to graduate.

Sure enough my older sister was correct although none of my family and especially me saw it coming. In fact I believe it was one of several small miracles that have shaped who I am today.

Although I was learning quite a bit about behaviour but thinking of reasons why I should not help counsel people, something beautiful happened. I discovered the brain and the central nervous system. I know, it was always there but I did not notice it. 

From that moment on, I knew I wanted to study the brain in all medical aspects. It was as if I was walking on clouds – learning was so much fun and almost effortless. But at this time, I needed to graduate and did so knowing that I would work in a laboratory and ‘beef’ up on my sciences at night.

Long story short: two years after working full time and taking night classes, I was accepted into a pre-doctoral program in anatomy and neurobiology and into a neuroscience centre of excellence.

During my pre-doctoral program I was exposed to very exciting areas of neuroscience including memory and learning, neurodegenerative diseases, and spinal cord injuries. I was not exposed to brain tumour biology until midway through my graduate training and by that time I had wanted to work in the field of nerve regeneration.

A young relative diagnosed with a brain tumour

At this point, Stevie, a young relative was diagnosed with an astrocytoma. The medical centre in which I was conducting my graduate training is in the same city that St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital is located. Although my relative lived over eight hours away and the family had no substantial income, St. Jude took Stevie in for treatment.

Because it was quite a distance for family other than Stevie’s mom and dad, I was fortunate enough to be with them when I could. This was another significant wow moment in my life. It was not a feel good wow. When I walked through the reception areas for St Jude’s, it was wow - these children are too young for cancer, these parents are in pain albeit much different than their children’s pain.

I also learned how wise and wonderful the children are. Stevie was treated over a year or so then sent home for therapy and was able to be with his siblings, cousins and friends for a few more years.

Post doctoral training

Once you've obtained a doctorate degree, you continue to ‘postdoctoral’ training. This is usually a very difficult choice as one needs to narrow their research area focus. So at this point in my life I felt I had to decide between following my first inclination to study nerve regeneration or pursue a totally different area – one of cancer biology as I became more aware of my desire to learn more about brain cancer.

I was not aware of many options and there was no official brain cancer programme at St. Jude’s at that time, as there is now. I decided to take a couple of years to further my training in tumour cell biology. Following this, I moved on and was able to help build a neuro-oncology laboratory and that is how I got started.

A dream job

I feel hopeful for research progress that will translate to better treatment for children with brain cancerMore than seventeen years later, I was offered a ‘dream’ job to work with Professor Geoff Pilkington at the University of Portsmouth. One of my major areas of focus is to help his team work to capitalise on the recent and very exciting advances made in paediatric brain cancer genomics, especially concerning childhood medulloblastoma. 

For the first time in my career (over 20 years), I feel hopeful for research progress that will translate to better treatment for children with brain cancer. Not only do I feel hopeful for new therapies, I have regained hope in the process of medical research where it is not individual scientists making these advances, it is a result of an international team effort. This team approach is what I want to bring to my job and looking back this was implanted in my body before my love for science and it is rewarding to know that something came out of pre-science training.

Most folks that I work with know I love quotes and one of my favourite quotes that relates to my laboratory experience is from John Muir “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”.

Dr Helen L Fillmore, PhD Cellular & Molecular Neuro-oncology, School of Pharmacy & Biomedical Sciences, University of Portsmouth

Read more: Helen abseils the Spinnaker Tower


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