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When radiotherapy doesn’t work

Sofie Nyholm Henrichsen, 24, is studying medicine at Aalborg University. She is one of five Danish medical students who will be sent to the USA to follow the Lundbeck Foundation’s 2020 DARE (Danish American Research Exchange) Fellowship programme.

Sofie will be studying and conducting research at Stanford University, one of finest universities in the US.

Her research focuses on treatment of rectal cancer. The patient usually receives a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy before the cancerous tissue is surgically removed.

Sofie Nyholm Henrichsen explains that the chemotherapy supplements the radiation therapy, to ensure that radiotherapy works to maximum effect: ‘Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for all patients. Around 15–20% of rectal cancer patients are resistant to radiation. They don’t react to the radiotherapy, and the question is why?

More specifically, Sofie will be investigating whether there is an underlying genetic reason why most patients with rectal cancer react positively to the cocktail of chemotherapy and radiation they are given by their doctors, while a minority of 15–20% don’t.

At Stanford University, Sofie will be conducting her research in the laboratory of cancer specialist Maximilian Diehn. He will be her American supervisor, and she will be taking much of the material she needs for her study with her:

‘I’ve been given permission to borrow around 360 samples of tumour tissue taken from Danish patients treated for rectal cancer. The samples were collected from hospitals nationwide, and the tissue is fixed in formalin and embedded in paraffin. Each sample is a mere 4/1000ths of a millimetre thick,’ Sofie explains.

The samples are unique because each is accompanied by the individual patient’s treatment data – in anonymised format. ‘We’ve been storing tissue samples of all patients treated for rectal cancer in Denmark since 2001, and I’ve borrowed the 360 samples from this collection. They don’t have this type of database in the US, which makes the data interesting for the cancer researchers at Stanford,’ says Sofie.

Ultrathin slices of the Danish tissue samples will be DNA sequenced at Stanford University. Sofie Nyholm Henrichsen will then work with her American colleagues to seek to identify whether there is a genetic explanation for the resistance of some rectal cancer patients to radiotherapy. Among other things, they will compare the Danish tumour tissue with a panel of cancer-related genes assembled by Maximilian Diehn.

During the course of her project, Sofie Nyholm Henrichsen will receive advice and guidance from her Danish mentor, Ursula Falkmer, who is a professor of oncology at Aalborg University and Aalborg University Hospital.

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