Every month, one member of the TGMI team will tell us why they are so committed to the vision of the TGMI, and share a bit more about their work and interests.This week we hear from TGMI Programme Manager Ann Strydom.
What has been the main focus of your work to date?
I have worked at The Institute of Cancer Research in various research support and project management roles since 2009. For the past 3 years I also been Operational Manager of TGLclinical, a clinical genetic testing laboratory testing cancer predisposition genes.
Prior to moving to the UK in 2006, I worked as a nurse and midwife in South Africa. For 10 years my work there was intensively focused on implementing HIV/AIDS testing and treatment programmes in countries across Southern Africa.
Although these two working environments may seem entirely different I constantly see parallels between the rapid pace of change and swiftly evolving technologies and treatments that occurred in the burgeoning HIV epidemic and those that are happening now in genetic medicine.
What are you most excited about in genetic medicine?
That gene testing can offer individuals with a life altering diagnosis worthwhile information that lets them make real choices about treatment. Just as testing for HIV infection changed focus from delivering devastating news to helping people onto treatment to manage their health, so gene testing is increasingly able to focus on helping to identify the best treatments and management.
From the difficult years when we were unable to offer patients any treatment, I still recall with awe the many, many people who reacted to an HIV positive test with inspiring action to protect and support their family and raise community awareness. Today I see that happening in families who are being given the opportunity to find out about the role of genetics in the disease. I’m a firm believer that people are more likely to react positively than negatively if they are given clear and relevant information with full transparency about the known unknowns.
What are you most concerned about in genetic medicine?
Finding ways to more accurately define and communicate the contribution of genetic factors in assessing a person’s future risk of disease. This seems to me fundamental to allowing individuals to make truly informed choices and to avoid unnecessary anxiety which has the potential to morph into fear, guilt or fatalism. However before improvements in risk prediction can be made, programmes such as TGMI need to establish much firmer foundations than those we are currently relying on for information between the links between genetic variation and disease.
Why did you get involved in TGMI?
The opportunity to participate in a programme that aims to design the building blocks that can be used to implement genetic medicine seemed very exciting. Similarly the chance to work with vastly knowledgeable and dedicated researchers in this field is exciting and challenging. I also believe there is enormous potential for genetic medicine to bring more effective treatment to the management of various disease burdens in all parts of the world. TGMI has a clear commitment to make their work openly accessible to anyone who can benefit from it.
What is the most important thing that you would like the TGMI to achieve?
To be a “go-to” source for anyone – clinicians, laboratory scientists, individuals and families – to find out how best to assess information linking genetic variation with the potential for disease.
If you had a magic wand (i.e. unlimited people/resources) what would you do to make genetic medicine work?
Develop a world-wide population based longitudinal study which would integrate both genetic and lifestyle information to more clearly elucidate the contribution of each to people’s life-time health. This would need to be accompanied by the development of tools and methods to more clearly explain risk and to interpret population risk into information meaningful to an individual.
Do you have a favourite gene? If so – what and why?
It would have to be CCR5. The identification of the protein’s role in allowing the virus to enter host cells was a massive breakthrough in HIV knowledge. There was also real excitement when individuals with mutations in the gene were found to have resistance to infection. Not yet the magic bullet, but a moment of hope for the development of further new treatments.
What is a surprising fact that few people know about you?
For a number of years I volunteered as a lifesaver at my favourite beach, Fish Hoek, on the Cape Peninsula. My style was definitely more Mrs Doubtfire than Bay Watch, but we had a lot of fun.
If you had a chance to experience a completely different career for a week, what job would you try?
This is an easy one, as it is something I have longed to do for many years – be the official scorer for a cricket test match, preferably an Ashes match (England vs Australia) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.