Meet Dr Eleni Ladikou, Clinical Doctoral Fellow in Haematology.
In 2015, Dr Ladikou embarked on a career as a junior clinical academic trainee in Leicester, where she completed the Academic Foundation Programme.
During this time, she conducted a four-month research project focused on B-cell lymphomas. After this, she relocated to Brighton and UHSussex, successfully completed her NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF) in Haematology, from 2017 to 2020.
She said: “Throughout my fellowship, I divided my time between clinical duties at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, which constituted 75% of my workload, and Haemato-oncology research at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), which made up the remaining 25%. From 2020 until 2023 I stayed in UHSussex and BSMS, in order to complete my PhD in Cancer Biology.”
“What I cherish most about my role as a doctor is the opportunity to engage with individuals and become a significant part of their lives. Assisting them during challenging times is immensely fulfilling, evoking a profound sense of accomplishment. However, I often miss the intellectual stimulation and creative elements that science offers.
“As a result, I am very passionate about pursuing a clinical academic career, where I can combine the rewards of human interaction in clinical medicine with my interest in medical research.
“My contact with academic haematology occurred during my undergraduate studies when I devoted a year to working in a haemato-oncology laboratory in Leicester. Since that pivotal moment, the idea of a career without research became unimaginable.
“In 2017, I relocated to UHSussex following a conversation with Professor Chevassut, who informed me about the unique research opportunities within our trust. Throughout my Academic Clinical Fellowship (ACF), my primary focus remained on laboratory research. Upon embarking on my PhD, I further diversified my experience by participating in clinical trials at the Clinical Research Facility (RSCH). This was an entirely new and exciting opportunity for me.”
Researching a serious type of blood cancer…
Eleni said: “My research is on a serious type of blood cancer called Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). This is a tough disease to fight and sadly, it takes the lives of 2,700 people in the UK every year.
“Usually, treatment includes strong chemotherapy and possibly a stem cell transplant. Both these treatments can have a lot of side effects that affect the quality of life of patients, and they need the patient to be generally healthy without other major health problems.
“Unfortunately, the treatments we have right now just aren’t helping enough. Only about 1 in 4 patients with AML are still alive 5 years after finding out they have the disease. Even after going through drug treatment, for about 6 in 10 patients, the cancer comes back within 6 years.
“This happens because the chemotherapy kills most, but not all, AML cells, while some AML cells manage to stay alive. These resistant cells often hide in the bone marrow where they stick onto other cells and are protected from chemotherapy.
“In my research, I’m trying to find out exactly how these AML cells cling onto bone marrow cells. My goal is to figure out how to detach them and get them out into the bloodstream. If we can do that, then the chemotherapy can kill them more easily.”
“Over the last few years, new treatments have been developed and some of the haematological malignancies are now considered curable. Despite these advances and the development of new chemotherapy agents, AML remains a challenge with poor prognosis. There is a definite clinical need for better, more effective treatments with less side effects, lower relapse rates and the possibility of a cure. Through my research, current patients diagnosed with AML and their families will get a better insight into the cause of disease recurrence and it is hoped that future patients will benefit by attaining longer remissions and potentially be cured.”
Developing my research
“During my Academic Clinical Fellowship at UHSussex, I successfully completed my clinical membership exams (MRCP) and a Master of Research (MRes) early, enabling me to use my remaining laboratory-based time to generate the pilot data for a clinical PhD fellowship application.
“I consider myself fortunate to have crossed paths with Professor Andrea Pepper and Professor Chris Pepper at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), both of whom are world renowned scientists in the field of haemato-oncology. They warmly welcomed me into their ‘research family’ and over the past three years, they have nurtured my development as a clinician and scientist, for which, I am very grateful.
“I have been awarded the Leukaemia UK “Future of Haematology/Early Career Development” grant (£5,000), to cover consumables and we successfully secured three years of clinical fellowship and consumable funding from the Sussex Cancer Fund for my PhD. I have since also been awarded the British Society of Haematology (BSH) Early-Stage Research start-up grant (£16,500) to cover extra laboratory consumables.
“During my PhD, I worked four days per week in the lab, where I used patient samples and cell lines to test novel drugs trying to disrupt the leukaemia – bone marrow cell attachment. One day per week I worked in the hospital at the Clinical Research Facility, where I was involved in several clinical trials and clinical research projects.
“I have also been awarded the BSH Meeting Support Grant (£300 per annum) to fund two patient open days that my research team organised in partnership with the Sussex Cancer Fund.
“On these open-days patients, and their families/friends, are invited to join the research team at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, have a tour of the labs, meet the researchers, and give input into our projects and aims. The feedback we receive highlights that this is a highly constructive and rewarding day for both patients and researchers alike.”
Proudest research achievement
“The achievement I am most proud of during my career so far is undeniably rooted in my doctoral research, which centered on Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). Unfortunately, despite aggressive chemotherapy, relapse occurs in approximately 60% of patients within six years.
“This significant challenge fueled my research, inspiring me to innovate and make a difference. In pursuit of a solution, I engineered a simple artificial bone marrow model on a plastic disc, enabling a close study of how AML cells adhere to other cells in the bone marrow, thus evading chemotherapy.
“After rigorous testing of numerous drug combinations, I found that inhibiting the CD44 receptor on AML cells amplifies the lethal impact of chemotherapy. Additionally, I found that after blocking CD44 receptor, the AML cells employ the FAK pathway to maintain their bond to other cells in the bone marrow. By blocking both the CD44 receptor and the FAK pathway, more AML cells become detached, leaving them susceptible to chemotherapy.
“The implications of these findings are tremendous for patients. Current treatments for AML are simply not good enough; therefore, improving the efficacy of chemotherapy could potentially decrease the frequency of relapses.
“Additionally, if we can achieve similar effects with reduced chemotherapy dosage using supplementary drugs that block certain pathways, it could help mitigate the harsh side effects endured by patients. This advancement would not only enhance their treatment outcomes, but also ameliorate their quality of life during an incredibly challenging phase.”
Plans for the future
“Following my PhD, I will return to clinical practice to complete my haematology training. I have also applied for funding to co-supervise a new PhD student (together with Professor Andrea Pepper and Dr Fabio Simoes). Longer term, I am aiming to apply for a lectureship and fellowship to develop my own research team.”
Advice for those considering research
“Embarking on a clinical academic career is an immensely rewarding journey, and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue it. I would encourage those considering this path to maintain an open mind and readiness to explore various types of research.
“This will allow you to discover which area aligns most closely with your interests. It’s vital to express your interest and build connections with others in the field as networking plays a significant role in career development.
“At UHSussex, we offer a plethora of opportunities, and we eagerly welcome young, talented individuals who can contribute to and uphold our standard of excellence.”