31 Aug 2022

Dr Simon Mitchell

Can computers help doctors make blood cancer treatment decisions? 

We spoke to Dr Simon Mitchell, one of our Leukaemia UK funded John Goldman Fellows, based at the University of Sussex in Brighton. Dr Mitchell told us about his research career so far, his hopes for the future and a few insights into life outside his vital work.  

Did you always know you wanted to be a cancer researcher?  

Not at all, in fact, I must admit that my passion for biology came after completing a degree in Computer Science and Maths. When I was younger I imagined I would go on to programme computers for a technology company. Then I discovered “systems biology”, which meant I could programme computers to simulate health and disease! That is what I did for my PhD.  

Following my PhD I got to work at the University of California, Los Angeles to simulate the immune system using computing and maths. It was during this work when I noticed that, with a few tweaks, my simulations looked a lot like blood cancer. Once I realised that I had a chance to have an impact on blood cancer I established my own lab at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Now we research blood cancer using a combination of computing work and lab work. It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding. 

What have been the highlights of your research career to date?  

I’ve been very lucky to work alongside some amazing people, both in the UK and internationally. Being involved in incredible teams, making fascinating discoveries together, and publishing our projects, has been a real highlight.

Personally, the most exciting moments come from interacting with people who use a variety of approaches to tackle blood cancer. Using computing to simulate biology is a relatively new approach, but I believe it’s essential for progress in blood cancer research. 

Sometimes we share results with people and they are amazed that they came from a computer. This is particularly exciting when we’re impressing the doctors who interact with patients, because that is how we know we’re going to make a difference. Every time this happens it sticks in my mind.  

What has the John Goldman Fellowship meant to your research?  

The John Goldman Fellowship came at a key time in my career. I had recently moved from America to the UK to establish my research group at the University of Sussex.  I had some exciting ideas and preliminary data but without funding I would not have been able to pursue them.  

Getting the John Goldman Fellowship allowed me to establish my group, hire amazing global talent, and now my research group is growing rapidly and able to work on a number of projects all focused on providing better treatments for blood cancer.  

What are your fellowship findings so far?  

My John Goldman Fellowship research project has been very exciting. We showed that using a computer we can predict how lymphoma cells will respond to drugs that try and kill cancer cells. This is important because currently only some patients respond to this class of drugs.  

Our simulations predicted that two drugs would work really well in combination, even though they were not particularly effective on their own. At one point in the project we didn’t really know if our simulations were accurate, but when we showed these results to our experimental collaborators they looked around the room excitedly. 

It turned out they had recently tested this drug combination in the lab, and they had seen the same surprising result! Then we knew our simulations were accurate, and we could use this technique to find new treatment approaches that hadn’t yet been discovered in the lab. 

What’s next for your research? 

1. We have shown that our simulations can work to predict how lymphoma cells will respond to drugs in the lab, but we next want to use samples from lymphoma patients.

2. I want to make our simulations available online, for free, to everyone. Computational biology can be intimidating to some but we’re seeing more exciting results than any one lab can explore. We hope that if we put our virtual blood cancer simulations online with an easy-to-use interface then it can help everyone and speed up research progress.

What’s your hope for the future of blood cancer research?  

I am working towards a future where we know which drugs will work best for which patients, and therefore patients with the same diagnosis get different drugs.

This is often called “personalised medicine”, and I think it’s only possible with the help of computational biology.  

My vision for the future is that we extract some extra information from the samples we use to diagnose patients with blood cancer. We use this information to set up a computer simulation that represents that patient. Then, using that virtual patient, we test all the drugs that we have available in a virtual drug trial.  

This will predict which drug will work best, and doctors can use this information to get the right drugs into the right patients! It’s ambitious, but I think our work has shown that it’s possible. I think together, as a blood cancer research community, we can get there. 

Finally, could you tell us a bit about how you spend your spare time?  

Currently, when I’m not at work, a lot of my time is occupied by a new rescue dog, Pepper. As a former street dog he’s a handful and needs lots of patience, but he’s totally worth it!  

When he lets me leave the house, I really enjoy cycling, and making the most of the beautiful Sussex countryside. I’m also a big fan of weird and wonderful art and music, so I love living in Brighton and enjoying the variety of concerts and drag shows it offers. 

Find out more about Dr Mitchell’s research into using virtual patients to deliver personalised medicine for lymphoma.

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