Liquid biopsies have also opened new perspectives in the field to which Blackhall has dedicated much of her research career.
"I would like to use this award to highlight the unmet need in small-cell lung cancer, where progress has lagged behind non-small cell lung cancer in the last decade, partly because of the difficulty of obtaining sufficient tissue to study the cancer biology, conduct gene expression profiling and identify oncogenic drivers that could be matched to a targeted therapy,” she stated. “The possibility to study circulating tumour cells from blood samples has been a game-changer in helping us better understand the heterogeneity of small-cell tumours and identify molecular subtypes that could inform a personalised medicine approach.”
At the Christie Hospital in Manchester, U.K., Blackhall has created a research environment spanning lung cancer biology, liquid biomarkers, novel therapies, phase I-III clinical trials, radiotherapy and supportive care. She has published more than 200 manuscripts, including internationally leading research in circulating tumour cells (CTCs) and on precision medicines. Among other landmark studies, Blackhall led efforts to implant CTCs into mice and developed what are now widely adopted preclinical models mimicking patients’ clinical outcomes and response to treatment.
“Receiving this distinction has felt like an affirmation of my initial decision to specialise in this field after being assigned to a lung cancer ward led by Prof. Nick Thatcher, who also worked closely with Prof. Hansen, during my general medical rotation. It led me into a career that has been highly engaging and deeply purposeful,” she commented. As an advocate of team science, it is the collaborative aspect of her work that Blackhall looks back on with the most pride.
She also believes that international collaboration will be key to fulfilling recently raised hopes for faster progress in this field going forward.
“The striking thing about small-cell lung cancer is its initial sensitivity to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, followed by the rapid emergence of drug resistance, usually within one year of treatment. Understanding this change and the underlying biology is a major task for future research,” said Blackhall.