Meet the expert - Dr Laura Blackburn

By Laura Blackburn

12 November 2018


Dr Laura Blackburn is Acting Head of Science. Her background is in Zoology and she has extensive science writing and communication experience. An interest in the challenges involved in translating research into the clinic led Laura to the PHG Foundation. Laura contributes her expertise in explaining complex scientific concepts and policy implications to projects on emerging technologies and assists with our public affairs work. Laura currently leads our project on Circulating tumour DNA technology use in cancer management

You’ve been leading our work on using ctDNA to test for mutation, which can inform treatment – but only for use in very specific cases of lung cancer; the number of people this can help is very small. Is this worth NHS time/money/effort?

Yes. The effort that has been invested in developing current tests will pay off in terms of building technical and clinical expertise within the health system. When it comes to implementing new tests, we can build on this expertise rather than starting from scratch each time. The small number of patients that current testing helps has been an advantage in some ways – laboratories have had time to perfect techniques and pathways and not been overwhelmed with testing demand at this stage.

What’s next for liquid biopsy?

There are many clinical trials going on that collect data on the different ways in which ctDNA testing can be used in cancer management - in particular, stratifying patients in clinical trials according to the genetics of their tumour, monitoring patients after surgery or during treatment to see if their cancer has come back. While there has been a lot of publicity about using liquid biopsy for early detection of cancer, there are a number of clinical, technical and ethical challenges to be overcome. Outside of cancer, liquid biopsy is also having an impact as a tool for non-invasive prenatal testing and diagnosis. There is some very interesting research and clinical trials ongoing into using cell-free DNA to monitor organ health, particularly after transplants. There is also early-stage research ongoing on using liquid biopsy to discover markers for neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease.

What has been one of the most satisfying outcomes from your work here?   

Other than the ctDNA project, our most recent ‘big’ report, The personalised medicine technology landscape was launched at NHS Expo and was the culmination of over a year’s work. It’s been great to see the feedback and interest in the report and there will be more to come.

What are your top tips for communicating science to policy makers?

  • Audience – who do you want to speak to?
  • Consider how much your audience know about science
  • Stick to the basics and fundamental messages.
  • For health, put the patient/citizen at the centre of your message.
  • Don’t assume that people will find your work inherently interesting – put it in context
  • Avoid use of the word ‘breakthrough’ at all costs.

Making science work for health – any predictions?

It will be harder than we think to get medicines that use genome editing into routine clinical use. It is a complicated technology and we still have a lot to learn about the fundamental biology.

What is your biggest achievement – personal or professional – to date

For someone who was the worst in my school class at gymnastics, doing my first handstand against a wall, aged 36, was quite an achievement!

Do any metaphors come to mind to describe the kind of work you do?

Beautifully choreographed plate spinning (sometimes the plates wobble. Rarely, one breaks).


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