Spotlight on… clinical fellow, Matt Fittall

During training as a clinical oncologist, Matt Fittall joined the Crick in 2016 as one of our clinical fellows. He tells us what motivates him, how he taught himself to code, and where he sees himself in five years’ time.
Matt Fittall

Matt's bio

Find out more about Matt's career so far. 

What is your current job and what does it entail?

As a clinical fellow in the Cancer Genomics Lab, I’m part of a team that studies changes in genomic information in cells to learn more about how cancer develops.

We use computational tools to analyse large quantities of genetic data from cancer patients so that we can work out the changes that occur when healthy cells become cancerous.

I’m particularly interested in bone cancers, and a lot of my work focuses on understanding the genetic fingerprint of specific tumour types, ultimately to help improve patient diagnosis and treatment.

The most valuable part of being at the Crick for me is having so many world-class experts under one roof!

For instance, we recently discovered a genetic marker that distinguishes between aggressive bone cancers and a rare benign bone tumour, and will help doctors guide treatment decisions.

What motivated you to take a break from the clinic to work in a lab?

Medicine is always changing and that’s what gives us hope that we will be able to do even better for our patients in the future. Cancer care epitomises that, with loads of new treatments coming along, which means doctors have a lot of scientific papers to read! Since the advent of chemotherapy in the 1950s, there have numerous glimmers of hope that cancer would soon be beaten but it always turns out to be ten times more complex than we had imagined.

I wanted to get into the lab to understand just a little more about how cancer evolves to be a step ahead of us. In exploring those fundamental aspects, I hope that the next 70 years of developments can be even more meaningful than the last.

It was during a brief stint in Boston as a medical student, that I became aware how integrated clinical practice and fundamental science could be. Doctors could treat patients in the morning and study the same disease in the lab in the afternoon.

Matt's academic background:

2002-2005 MA Natural Sciences, Cambridge

2005-2008 Clinical training, Oxford

2008-2010 Foundation Training – South London

2010-2012 Core Medical training, UCLH, London

2013-2016 NIHR academic clinical fellowship and specialty training in Clinical Oncology, London

2014-2016 MSc Oncology, Institute of Cancer Research, London

2016-present Crick-CRUK clinical fellowship, London

So what exactly is a clinical fellowship?

Clinical fellowships are basically training opportunities for clinicians wanting to get some more hands-on research experience. In my case, I’m taking a break from being a practising doctor to carry out a three-year research PhD. In order to understand the more fundamental science behind medical advances, you really need this in-depth period of training. It turns out that after six years of medical school and a masters I couldn’t get enough of being a student!

What’s the best part about being a Crick clinical fellow?

The most valuable part of being at the Crick for me is having so many world-class experts under one roof! The scientists here are pushing the frontiers of their various areas of fundamental science. It means internal seminars are like hearing keynote lectures at international conferences and when we get external speakers they can be really special. It’s been a real pleasure being exposed to that.

The Crick is also a brand new institute which means a shiny new building, equipment and brilliant support both for experiments and students.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Probably teaching myself to code! When I started in the lab, I knew very little about the data scraping techniques that scientists use to find patterns in vast datasets and identify cancer biomarkers or new cancer genes. This was a steep learning curve for me, but it’s been very satisfying teaching myself how to write code that helps me solve research questions.

What’s next for you?

I have another year left of my fellowship at the Crick, but I would really like to be able to carry on some research after I return to clinical work. Some academic clinicians do manage to split their time between looking after patients and academia, both during specialty training and as consultants, but who knows what opportunities will arise!

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