Postgraduate researchers

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Meet our doctoral students

Emily Colley

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Name: Emily Colley

Age: 23

Current stage of study:  PhD student, I started at the end of October 2016 so I’m fairly new to Tommy’s.

Research Focus: The investigation of cell free fetal DNA (cffDNA) in the evaluation of miscarriages.

Can you start by telling us a little about how long you have been working on your particular body of research and how you came to be working on it?

I’ve been working on this particular research for just over a month. I trained as a Biomedical Scientist and completed an MSc in Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London so I have plenty of clinical and research laboratory skills. I joined Tommy’s when I was awarded the PhD studentship.

Why does this research appeal to you specifically?

My interests in science have always been within reproductive biology and unfortunately 15% of clinically recognised pregnancies result in spontaneous abortion with more than 50% due to chromosomal abnormalities, so this is a huge area in early reproductive biology.  The specific appeal of this project is giving women answers as to why a miscarriage occurred. This will hopefully give them peace of mind and reassurance that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the miscarriage.

What is the long term aim of the work you are currently doing and when do you expect to have researched these results?

It has been recognised that cell free fetal DNA (cffDNA) is present in maternal plasma and has already been utilised in non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) to screen for trisomy 13, 18 and 21 in ongoing pregnancies.  My work considers how the cffDNA can be utilised to clinically evaluate early miscarriages, including whether cffDNA can be used to reliably detect chromosomal aneuploidies and whether cffDNA can be used as an early predictor of miscarriage.  I hope to reach these results within the three years of my PhD.

How long has Tommy’s been involved with the work you’re doing and what impact does the charity have on what you’re able to do?

Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage Research has offered and funded my PhD. I rely on Tommy’s miscarriage clinics for recruitment of women in my studies.

How do you hope the work you’re doing will impact on hopefully parents across the nation?

A miscarriage can have a huge impact on women and their families. One of the primary questions from women who have unfortunately miscarried is: Why did I miscarry? While there is testing available, it requires material from the pregnancy to produce a result. I hope that my work will be able to answer the question of why a miscarriage happened, by using a non-invasive method which could also be used when there is no material present, providing answers when previously there would be none.  It could also help in the management of future pregnancies. For example, I hope to develop a method to give reliable prognosis as to whether a miscarriage is expected in the future, in order to prepare the families.  

How much interaction do you have with women and parents and how much is based in the laboratory?

My PhD is laboratory based, so I have very little interaction with the parents. However, there is a great team of Tommy’s clinicians who work closely with the parents.

What does the Tommy’s funding enable you to do that you wouldn’t otherwise have been in a position to?

Tommy’s funding enables me to complete the genetic testing and analysis involved in using cffDNA to evaluate miscarriages. Without Tommy’s this work wouldn’t be completed.

Let’s end on a cheesy one! What’s your proudest achievement to date?

The competition for my PhD was very fierce. So to date, this is my proudest achievement. 

Thanos Georgakas

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Name: Athanasios Georgakas

Age: 31

Current stage of study: Following in the tradition of many notable scientists in the field of human reproductive biology, my educational background has roots in farm animal breeding. With a Degree in Animal Production Science and a Master in Equine Science, I’m now pursuing my first year of PhD study at the Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research (IMSR) based at the University of Birmingham (UoB).

Research Focus: My project focuses on the role of sperm DNA quality in early miscarriage. The chemical structure of DNA might be altered naturally or due to environmental factors, including diet, exercise and smoking. Damage to sperm DNA, such as breaks in single or double DNA strands, has been linked to increased risk of miscarriage. This project is a truly fantastic opportunity for me and my supervisors Dr Jackson Kirkman-Brown, Professor Arri Coomarasamy and Dr Sarah Conner, to explore a really fascinating research topic and hopefully change some paradigms in unexplained miscarriage.

Can you start by telling us a little about how long you have been working on your particular body of research and how you came to be working on it?

As an undergraduate student in Greece I had the opportunity to receive hands-on training in farm animal breeding. Subsequently whilst studying for my Masters degree in Wales, I visited Sweden and worked on stallion semen quality at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. During this time I developed my laboratory and scientific skills, and realised that I really wanted to work in the field of reproductive biology and in particular in andrology. Eventually, my research goals took shape while I was working with infertile men as a Laboratory Andrology Practitioner at UCLH.

Why does this research appeal to you specifically?

My professional experience, working at a large NHS fertility centre, soon helped me to realise the importance of male factor infertility, in particular in relation to miscarriage. It is a really rewarding experience to contribute to such an exciting translational research project and to see how research work in the laboratory can improve the prevention and prognosis of miscarriage in clinical practice.

What is the long term aim of the work you are currently doing and when do you expect to have researched these results?

Our journey has just officially started but we hope to achieve meaningful initial results, to guide us in the next stages of my research, by Easter 2017.  We will be trying to confirm the level at which sperm DNA damage starts to have a clinical effect on miscarriage risk, and whether we can treat the man to stop the sperm DNA being damaged, to alleviate miscarriage. Moreover, since my PhD project is a work package within the wider Tommy’s miscarriage research portfolio, some of our findings will be informed by co-analysis with the results of other work packages, and therefore available only at a later stage.

How long has Tommy’s been involved with the work you’re doing and what impact does the charity have on what you’re able to do?

Tommy’s charity is crucial to this work. In particular my PhD project is one of the work packages within Tommy's National Centre for Miscarriage Research, directed by Professor Arri Coomarasamy here in Birmingham. Tommy’s is unique among many charities in that research and evidence-based medicine is a fundamental part of its existence. Therefore, in working as a PhD student and being a member of Tommy’s research team, I benefit not only from the necessary funding but also from expertise and knowledge invaluable for my study.

How do you hope the work your doing will impact on hopefully parents across the nation?

We know that miscarriage affects 200,000 couples every year in the UK. Based on a systematic review and meta-analysis conducted by our team, as well as other studies published in recent years, we also know that many currently unexplained early miscarriages may be linked to poor sperm quality and in particular high sperm DNA fragmentation. Therefore we aim to systematically study this scenario, and hopefully develop some useful diagnostic and treatment approaches that will help to ameliorate the physical and emotional devastation experienced by many couples in UK and worldwide.

How much interaction do you have with women and parents and how much is based in the laboratory?

My work is based within UoB Centre for Human Reproductive Science (ChRS) laboratories as well as at Birmingham Women’s and Children's  Hospital NHS Foundation Trust (BWH). I’m confident that with expert teams within Tommy’s, UoB and BWH, we can provide all the support and information that couples may require. The outcome of this project is directly linked to the collaborative efforts of scientists, healthcare professionals and of course the patients who would like to participate.

What does the Tommy’s funding enable you to do that you wouldn’t otherwise have been in a position to?

None of this would be happening without the support of Tommy’s!

Let’s end on a cheesy one! What’s your proudest achievement to date?

I always dreamed of combining my skills, knowledge and passion for biology in a creative manner and for a useful purpose. Therefore I can undoubtedly say that I’m currently experiencing my greatest professional achievement.

Postgraduate Research

If you are a student who would like to become involved in the Tommy’s National Centre for Miscarriage Research then please contact us with details of your particular interest among our listed projects.