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Helen Forgham

BSc Applied Biomedical Science 2014

A talented graduate has trained her way from a London gym to Sydney, via the North East, to perform cutting-edge research at a prestigious Children’s Cancer Institute alongside world-leading experts in the field.

Helen Forgham swapped her middle-management role to explore a long-standing curiosity in the human body at university, ultimately conducting research into neuroblastoma – a cancer that accounts for a fifth of all diagnosed cases in babies under the age of one.

The 40-year-old, who is from Croydon in Surrey, originally left school at 16 but became disenchanted with the direction her career was heading, taking the bold decision to relocate to the North East and the University of Sunderland.

She said: “At this point I knew that I wanted to expand on my knowledge of the body, and that personal training for me had only scratched the surface; I wanted to understand the body at the very deepest level, in both health and disease.

“To begin with I was a little daunted about the prospect of going back into the education system, but as soon as I started I loved it. I was fortunate to meet so many likeminded people along the way; we challenged and helped each other and I’m happy to say that almost all are now in their dream jobs.”

During the final year of her Applied Biomedical Science Programme in Sunderland, Helen encountered Dr Jane-Carr Wilkinson, a senior lecturer in physiological sciences. This began a relationship which led to the field of neuroblastoma research.

Helen added: “Jane had been working within the children’s cancer field, specialising in neuroblastoma, for a number of years, and after listening to her discuss her research I immediately signed up as one of her project students. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became by this very complex and changeable cancer, which sadly still has an unacceptably low survival rate.

“Working as a Research Assistant for Dr Carr-Wilkinson, a senior lecturer with an interest in Paediatric Oncology, allowed me the opportunity to gain cutting-edge research experience in the field of cancer biology and stem cells.”

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that largely affects children under the age of five, with 90 diagnosed cases in the United Kingdom each year. Symptoms often begin with tiredness, fever and a loss of appetite, but can progress to include swelling, breathlessness, painful movement and bleeding.

Current testing for the cancer is conducted through blood and urine tests, CT and MRI scans, and can also include the young patient undergoing a bone-marrow biopsy. The treatment of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy sometimes lead to long term effects such as fertility and growth problems, as well as to changes in how the kidney and heart work.

Dr Carr-Wilkinson said: “Helen was a very enthusiastic and motivated student – she had a keen interest in Life Sciences which was evident from an early stage. In the final year of the BSc in Biomedical Sciences Helen pursued a laboratory research project in the field of Cancer Biology.

“She was always a pleasure to work with in the laboratory, and was a good team player with a drive to succeed, as well as an independent thinker – all qualities which are important in research.”

Helen’s dream from the outset was to complete a PhD, and it was Dr Carr-Wilkinson who suggested contacting acclaimed Australian scientist Professor Michelle Haber, and her colleague Professor Norris, at Sydney’s Children’s Cancer Institute, as they are both considered world-leaders in the neuroblastoma field.

After exchanging emails and conducting a telephone interview the University of Sunderland graduate was offered the position of Research Assistant in Australia, and the life changing experience of the past few years looks set to continue for Helen.

“My contract is for a year in the first instance, but subject to funding may continue indefinitely. My goal is still to complete a PhD and with this kind of experience I know I will be in the best possible position, when the opportunity arises.”

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