Beating bowel cancer together

Why do young people develop bowel cancer? – shining a light on the work of Susanti Susanti

Researcher, Susanti Susanti, tells us about her work, what a typical day in the laboratory looks like and why she decided to work in bowel cancer research.

What is your role and what’s the project you’re working on?

I’m an early-career researcher at the University of Nottingham and this is my first research position after doing my PhD. My PhD was focussed on looking at how cancer cells and the healthy cells around them interact. I’m delighted to be able to continue working in the field of bowel cancer research on a project funded by Bowel Cancer UK. I’m working on this project under the supervision of a renowned UK pathologist, Professor Mohammad Ilyas.

The project is looking at how bowel cancer develops in young people. In recent years, countries across the world have reported that more young people are developing the disease. At the moment, we know that only one in five younger patients with bowel cancer have a known change in their genes (mutation) causing their bowel cancer. What might be causing the remaining cases is still unknown. I’m trying to address this question by looking at the gut environment. This is the cancer cells and the surrounding healthy cells, including cells of the immune system. We’ll be using bowel cancer samples from younger patients to help us do this.

We’ve been lucky enough to receive other funding, from the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Indonesia Ministry of Research Technology & Higher Education and delivered by the British Council to expand this project to include samples from my home country, Indonesia; where the number of young people with bowel cancer is three times higher than in the UK. Recently, I also set up a start-up company to focus on developing a low-cost test to detect changes in some of the genes involved in developing bowel cancer. I hope this will allow more precise management and better treatment for patients in low and middle-income countries, where access to some diagnostic technologies is limited.

What does your typical day at work look like?

My job is never boring and there are always new things to learn. I usually spend most of my time in the laboratory doing research. I extract the genetic information (DNA) from samples of bowel cancer and then use a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction to increase the amount of certain pieces of the DNA. This allows me to look for changes - also called mutations. Looking at the specific mutations in the cancer can help us to understand how the cancer might grow and develop and predict what treatments might work best.

I also grow the different types of cells we have isolated from samples of bowel cancer. We use them to study how the cells interact with each other and how some cells might signal the cancer to grow more quickly.

Some of my time is spent teaching these techniques to students. If I’m not in the laboratory, I usually work on my computer to do data analysis, write research papers and think about and plan other projects we’d like to try and get funding for.

What made you want to do research into bowel cancer?

Research has always been my main passion. I developed an interest for life sciences in high school, especially chemistry and biology. I opted to study pharmacy as an undergraduate and it has impressed upon me the importance of basic sciences in solving health-related problems and improving quality of life.

Unfortunately, soon after finishing my masters degree in Australia, just before I started my PhD, I was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. Working in the field and then suddenly being diagnosed as a cancer patient was a shock. It felt like I was sitting a life-long exam with all my knowledge being questioned. It occurred to me that even after reading an impressive list of journals and books during my career as a cancer researcher, I actually knew very little about this disease. Not only have I experienced the symptomatic effects but also the psychological impacts of this disease. This has ignited in me a new vigour and zeal to investigate further in this field to contribute towards better understanding of the disease as well as to find the possible remedial measures.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The best part of my job as a researcher is having the opportunity to be able to ask questions and try to answer them myself through my research. It also feels so rewarding to share my findings with my peers and the wider community.

I feel that my experience of bowel cancer has given me a unique insight into this field of research, allowing me to form research questions that are particularly relevant for patients and those living beyond bowel cancer.  

How will your work help people with bowel cancer in the future?

I hope understanding more about how bowel cancer can develop at a younger age can help us to manage the disease better. I’m also passionate about improving equal access to cancer care in countries with limited resources by driving forward low-cost diagnostic and treatment options.

More importantly, through my experiences as a researcher and survivor, I want to advocate, raise awareness and spread optimism and a positive attitude, particularly among my fellow cancer patients and those living beyond the disease.

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