James McConnell is a post-doctoral research scientist working at the University of Manchester. He has a PhD in genetics from Newcastle University and already has one successful Prevent Breast Cancer-funded study under his belt. He’s now working on a new project investigating breast density and we thought we’d catch up with him to see how he’s getting on so far.
Hi James! What type of work do you carry out for Prevent Breast Cancer?
Hi! I’m a post-doctoral researcher – that means I spend most of my time in a white coat in the laboratory, looking down microscopes, pipetting things and swirling test tubes. The stereotypical scientist, really!
What are the particular areas you’re looking into at the moment? How might this eventually help with breast cancer prediction and prevention?
I’m investigating mammograms, which are X-ray pictures of the breast which help us detect cancer, but can also help identify women with dense breasts – we call this measure ‘mammographic density’. We know that dense breasts are a strong risk factor for developing breast cancer, but we still don’t fully understand why. My research has shown that in dense breasts, the collagen fibres that form a scaffold supporting the structure of the breast are reorganised. This is important because if we know a woman has dense breasts, we might be able to give her medicine to change the organisation of the collagen scaffold, reducing her breast density before she develops cancer.
What fascinates you so much about mammographic density?
Mammographic density represents an important opportunity to ‘get ahead’ of breast cancer. We can use it to predict if a woman is likely to develop cancer and, if she is, step in to prevent that from happening. As such, we can protect her from the effects of the disease. It doesn’t get much more fascinating than that.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
One of the coolest things about working on a project like this is that we’re at the very cutting edge – nobody has done this kind of research before. That means that every time I do an experiment, I could be producing some data that could really help breast cancer patients in the future. That makes my job very rewarding.
Have you had any particular career highlights?
As researchers, we get lots of chances to share our findings with other scientists, but fewer opportunities to engage with the public. I was lucky enough to be invited to Prevent Breast Cancer’s showcase evening where I was able to explain my research to the charity’s supporters and donors, showing how the money they raise is really helping to make a difference – that was a definite highlight.
You and your partner, Rachel, are both scientists juggling work with bringing up three young children – how do you manage?!
‘Manage’ is a good word! We have a three-year-old and three-month-old twins, so our house is pretty crazy at the moment. I think being scientists has helped us a bit because we like routine and structure and that’s a necessity at home! Rachel has been doing the hard work on parental leave for the past four months, but now I’m about to take over for the second half – wish me luck!
If you weren’t in this profession, what would you be doing?
Is it sad to say I always wanted to be a scientist? I love riding my bike though, so if I had to choose another trade, I’d be a professional cyclist. Sadly, there a couple of things standing in the way of this dream, such as my lack of ability on the bike and my love of crisps.
What would be your main message to women – and men – to help them reduce their risk of getting breast cancer?
My project looks at mammographic density as a risk factor and we can’t do anything to change that yet – but we’ll get there! In the meantime, what people can do to help reduce their risk is limit how much alcohol they drink, maintain a healthy weight and stay physically active.
To read more about James’ research, please visit https://preventbreastcancer.org.uk/breast-cancer-research/research-projects/gene-research/molecular-basis-breast-density/