Professor Serena Nik-Zainal wins 2021 Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal

Professor Nik-Zainal, a Cancer Research UK Advanced Clinician Scientist and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Genetics at the University of Cambridge, has won the 2021 Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal.

Professor Nik-Zainal’s research holds the key to personalised and more effective treatments for cancer patients, by identifying the 'fingerprints' of cancer tumours in the pattern of mutations they contain.

The Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal is awarded biennially to a rising star within biomedical research for contributing important and significant impacts to the field before, or in, their first independent position.

Professor Nik-Zainal
Professor Nik-Zainal

Professor Nik-Zainal, an Early Detection programme group leader, said:

"I am truly thrilled to have won this prestigious award from the Foulkes Foundation and the Academy of Medical Sciences. To have my team and I recognised for our efforts to improve outcomes for cancer patients through studying their cancer’s DNA is an honour."

During her PhD, Professor Nik-Zainal and her colleagues discovered and characterised the specific pattern of genetic mutations that occurs within different tumours, called mutational signatures. This opened up an entirely new field of study which allowed for the causes of cancers, such as tobacco smoke or UV light, to be identified from a tumour’s DNA.

Over the last few years Professor Nik-Zainal has pioneered research into the clinical applications of mutational signatures. She led the development of an algorithm that can detect specific breast cancers through their mutational signature, picking up those that are missed by conventional screening methods. She has recently demonstrated the algorithm’s potential in predicting the most effective treatment for these patients, by taking it through a Phase II clinical trial in collaboration with colleagues and industry.

In April 2021, Professor Nik-Zainal led the development of her second pioneering algorithm, which is used to spot the patients who may respond well to certain drugs that allow their own immune systems to attack their cancer. This algorithm has been trained to find the mutational signature that occurs in these specific cancers, meaning that the patients can quickly receive the correct, most effective treatment.

A champion of data sharing, Professor Serena Nik-Zainal is also leading a project to develop the necessary tools and infrastructure that will allow for large-scale, national clinical application of mutational signature research.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci, President of The Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

"The Medal recognises the significant work of young, innovative biomedical researchers. This year’s winner, Professor Nik-Zainal, has made exceptional contributions to cancer research, putting together a cross-disciplinary team who work to ensure their research can deliver direct benefits for patients. The tools Serena has created – and shown the effectiveness of in patients – have profound implications for the future of cancer diagnostics and treatment. I am inspired by her drive to enable equitable access to genomic data, whilst communicating this clearly to the public."

Find out more about the Foulkes Foundation Academy of Medical Sciences Medal, and why Professor Nik-Zainal was chosen as the winner.

Find out more about Serena and her research group on the MRC Cancer Unit website.