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Meet Dr Martina Finetti

Dr Martina Finetti tells us about her background and her research into rare childhood brain tumours.

Meeting and speaking with our researchers is always a fascinating experience. Recently, I had the chance to interview Dr Martina Finetti, Associate Fellow at The Northern Institute of Cancer Research, Newcastle University.

Sat opposite me is Dr Martina Finetti (pictured). This incredibly smart and passionate woman is researching atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumours (ATRTs) as part of the INSTINCT research programme we’re funding.

ATRTs are rare and aggressive tumours of the central nervous system, occurring mostly in the cerebellum (the part of the brain that controls movement and balance) or the brain stem (the part of the brain that controls basic body functions). These tumours are mainly seen in children aged three years or younger, and are the most frequent high grade brain tumours seen in babies under six months old.

Martina’s work involves understanding what is driving the growth of these devastating tumours, finding drug targets and, ultimately, being able to translate her findings to the clinic.

But why ATRTs? I ask her. Relative to other diseases areas, brain tumours are rare, and ATRTs even more so.

Martina nods. “As a teenager, I wanted to become a lawyer. In fact, I was even taking literature and law courses in college. During that time, I was also working with a charity which involved me going to hospitals and visiting families who had a sick child or children. I was assigned to a ward where there were two kids who both had rhabdoid tumours. At that time, there was nothing I could do to help them. Since that experience, I’ve felt a very personal connection to ATRTs, which is why I moved to Newcastle to study these tumours.”

Martina goes on to tell me that she moved to Newcastle about nine years ago to do her PhD and has stayed ever since. She now works in a big, collaborative laboratory with Professor Steve Clifford, INSTINCT programme lead, and Dr Dan Williamson, a co-applicant on the INSTINCT research programme.

As she tells me more about her lab and team members, she places a considerable emphasis on the word ‘collaborative’. So, I ask, what’s it like working in a collaborative setting, and why is it important?

She says: “It’s very interactive! With our lab focused on translational research, each person has their own specialty, their specific skills. Some lab members are better at understanding and analysing patient data, whereas others are better at conducting experiments. The best, and probably most important aspect of a collaborative atmosphere is that each person tries to have the best data with the best outcomes, and then shares that knowledge with others. This is so important, especially when working on translational research for rare diseases, such as childhood brain tumours.”

Next, I ask her about a paper she published recently that outlines the mechanism driving ATRTs, as well as the focus of her current research.

“ATRTs are special because they have only one mutation, relative to other tumours that have several mutations. In fact, the paper outlines this particular result. Additionally, this one mutation is actually the loss of a gene – which makes it hard to find targets for this tumour because if there’s no gene, there’s no corresponding protein to target. So the focus of my research is trying to understand how to find drug targets and also investigating alternative pathways to target this tumour.”

I tell her that her work sounds really interesting but also very difficult. Are there any challenges she’s had to face, or faces currently?

She says: “One of my biggest challenges is getting viable tumour samples. Often, the samples may not be well preserved, so by the time I get the sample, the tissue has degraded quite a bit, making the analysis difficult and skewing the results.”

She pauses for a moment and then adds, “I’m also a woman in science, which can be quite difficult. And being a European woman (post-Brexit) is even more so.”

I ask her why.

Martina explains: “Scientific research has been and is still to an extent a male dominated and driven field. I’ve personally found that men (and their work) are taken more seriously than their female counterparts, especially at the beginning of their research careers. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced that in my current lab with Dr Dan Williamson, but it took me longer than my male colleagues to be recognised for conducting good research.”

I ask her how she coped with this and what advice she’d give young female researchers.

“By asserting myself,” she declares passionately. “I’m a really direct person and I said what was on my mind. I didn’t think, even for a second, that I don’t belong in this field. And that’s the advice I would give to other women. Women find it hard to believe in themselves, but they should never think they (or their work) are wrong just because of their gender. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if a man or a woman has conducted the research, as long as it’s of high quality and benefits the patient.”

For the last part of our conversation we switch topics as I ask her where she can be found when she’s not in the lab.

Martina laughs and says, “In the countryside! I’m a country girl at heart and on weekends I’ll escape with my two dogs. I also love clay pigeon shooting!”

Read more about Martina’s work and the wider INSTINCT research programme.