The medical scientist mapping genomes to learn more about ovarian cancer

Siddhartha Kar didn’t think he was very good at maths until he learnt to map genomes. He’s now contributing to global research into ovarian cancer. Research, he says, is a bit like playing with Lego: first you build the design in the catalogue and then you take it to bits and make your own.

Siddhartha Kar at Homerton College (Nick Saffell)

Back in 2000, I stood in the Great Court of Trinity College to have my picture taken. I was a plump teenager and my father was behind the camera. The backdrop was the Master’s Lodge, which was then home to the renowned Indian economist Amartya Sen. That same day, we went to look at the Old Cavendish Laboratory on Free School Lane and to the Cambridge University Press Bookshop.

My parents had brought me from Mumbai in India to the UK for a holiday. My father had studied physics before going into the financial sector. My mother taught English Literature at university level. She was passionate about Shakespeare and Wordsworth. It sounds like a cliché but my parents were undoubtedly my greatest inspiration.

Siddhartha visits Cambridge “as a plump teenager” (Pratip Kar)

That brief trip to Cambridge had a profound effect on me. But little did I know that I would end up taking a PhD and becoming a Junior Research Fellow in Clinical Medicine at Homerton College. It shows how important it is to inspire children and young people, and introduce them early on to the wonderful world of academia.

I was an only child in a very intellectual household and we spent a lot of time reading. With my mother’s encouragement, I read the Brontë sisters’ novels and other classics. My father taught me physics and chemistry, and introduced me to books about the history and philosophy of science.

Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters got me interested in biology. When I was 18 I decided to go into medicine. The competition for places at India’s government-funded medical schools is phenomenal. Around 80,000 school leavers apply for 500 places. I got into the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Government Medical College in Pune and spent six years in medical training.

I discovered how fulfilling medical research can be. Because I was planning to go into paediatrics, I undertook a study looking at how infant immunisations could be less painful. By administering a drop of sugar, or allowing the baby to breastfeed, the pain can be significantly reduced. The experience gave me an idea of what’s possible — and how research makes an impact.

Research gives you room to be creative — in a way that clinical practice can’t. My schooling hadn’t allowed enough freedom for exploring ideas and I’d spent too much time feeling stressed. I’d always liked Lego because you can build something from the catalogue — and then take it apart and make something to your own design. Research studies, to me, feel like building something with blocks of Lego.

After medical school, I went to Houston to take a master’s degree in public health. It involved learning a lot of statistics. Having thought I had no real aptitude for maths, I realised that I was good at it. I became fascinated by one particular application of statistics — the field of genomics. It’s the next Holy Grail in science as it looks at what makes people susceptible to disease, how they respond to treatments, and what doctors can do about it. I applied to take a PhD at Cambridge.

While in Houston, I was interviewed over Skype by Paul Pharoah — he’s Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at Cambridge. One of the more surprising questions he asked was how I’d react if my computer stopped working. Would I take it back to the shop, seek help online, or try and fix it myself. I said I’d try to mend it myself. I think what he was getting at was whether I was an independent thinker prepared to try things out.

I did my PhD on genetic epidemiology as a Gates Scholar. The Gates experience starts with a week in the Lake District in the north of England. You’re part of an international group of 90 incoming scholars and the friendships you form expose you to diverse ideas and fields. Raphaël Lefèvre, a Gates scholar from France, was one of the first and closest friends I made. I even proof-read his book Ashes of Hama about the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria on the bus to the Lake District. He’s now at Oxford University.

I’m now a research associate in the Department of Public Health and Primary Care. I’m contributing to research into ways of identifying the genetic mechanisms that underlie susceptibility to cancers of the ovary, breast and prostate. My main focus is ovarian cancer. We’re involved in collaborations between more than 50 institutions across four continents which enable us to study well over 100,000 women.

By comparing changes in our genetic code, we will be able to pinpoint specific genes involved in the onset of cancer. These genes could be the targets for new therapies. Knowledge of these genetic changes could, someday, form the basis for genetic screening of new-borns or young adults to diagnose disease early.

Beyond cancer genetics, I’m interested in health policy and the social determinants of health — such as access to medical care and patterns of smoking. The NHS is a wonderful system that provides free healthcare for all. I’m sad to see that it’s in danger of being dismantled. In India and other countries many people rely on private healthcare, which drives up the cost of care for patients. We need systems like the NHS all over the world.

Translating research into practice is a big challenge. I’ve always been interested in the history of science. In 1854, John Snow famously traced the spread of cholera to a pump in Broad Street in London. However, it was not until several decades later that Britain was able to halt the spread of cholera and other infectious diseases.

As medical scientists, we’re taking incremental steps — we have to remember that it will take generations to make a difference.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series

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