Cancer Commons Scientist Matthew Warner, PhD, is a self-described East London boy who, back home, speaks with his brothers in Cockney rhyming slang that few would understand. Here, to the brain cancer patients he serves, Matt is a source of deep knowledge, understanding, and support.
Matt’s expertise stems from years of cancer research—beginning with his graduate training at the University of Cambridge and extending through a number of other positions before joining Cancer Commons in 2019.
In this interview, Matt shares the drivers, challenges, and rewards of his work.
You have an accomplished background in cancer research. How does that inform your work with patients?
My training focused on how cancer begins in the body. I studied what drives tumor growth at the molecular level and how we can leverage that information for new treatments. So it was a good foundation of cancer knowledge.
But perhaps more importantly, my training taught me to never leave a question unanswered. Back then, it was scientific questions. Now, when I am helping a patient, that translates into putting on my Sherlock Holmes cap and truly digging into whatever information they need in order to decide on their best treatment path.
Every patient’s cancer is unique, so a standard approach is not sufficient. I and my fellow Cancer Commons Scientists must do a lot of research for each patient, many of whom need novel treatments, and that’s where my training comes into play.
For an example of what my work can look like, we recently had a brain cancer patient who had received multiple treatments, and their family was keen to find an alternative treatment option for them that was beyond the standard anti-cancer therapies already available in the clinic. We were able to connect their physician with the makers of a new drug that could be a good fit but has only been offered to melanoma patients so far. Now, they’re considering it for him. That’s the kind of service we try to provide for all of our patients.
You mostly work with people dealing with brain tumors. What makes their cases challenging, and what gives you hope?
Brain cancer is a very difficult disease. Unlike other cancers, depending on where it is in the brain, it can affect a patient’s personality. It can affect control over their arms, legs, speech, even the ability to eat. Some patients might get lucky with the location of the tumor, but if not, it can be devastating—both the tumor itself and the possibility of disrupting brain function when surgically removing it.
Another challenge is that, unlike the rest of the body, the brain is protected by something called the blood-brain barrier. This prevents many drugs from being able to enter the brain, even though they work for other types of cancer.
But we are seeing hopeful advances. For instance, some approaches, such as Ommaya reservoirs and ultrasound techniques, are beginning to allow newer cancer treatments to bypass the blood-brain barrier. And other advancements are happening in noninvasive surgical approaches, such as laser interstitial thermal therapy to kill tumors that are too deep in the brain to remove by surgery. I am also very hopeful for cancer vaccine technologies.
So despite the challenges, there is a lot of hope. I will always remain an optimist, because if I don’t, I’m no help to patients. If I can give hope and help patients find novel treatment options, that’s something to celebrate.
What drives you to do this work?
Going back to my graduate work, in addition to my research, I very much enjoyed being a communicator and an advocate for science. Cancer patients are thrust into an industry filled with medical lingo, and they may leave a doctor’s appointment without understanding what they heard and what it means for their prognosis. So, I want to help translate this information.
That’s what drives me—informing patients, shedding a bit more light, and advocating for them in order to help them make better decisions, or to feel better about a decision they’ve already made. That’s something to feel happy about, because they’re sleeping better knowing they’re on the right path.
I am also driven by my own family’s experience with cancer. We’ve had close friends and family be diagnosed with advanced cancers, including my nephew who was diagnosed at two-and-a-half years of age. We sadly never won any of these battles and I dread this for my own children, my remaining family and friends, and for the other families I work with.
But that’s why I’m with these families on their journey, and that’s why I wear my own heart on my sleeve. I want them to know that I am a fellow human being who is in this journey shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
What strikes you the most about working with cancer patients?
I’m moved by the resilience of our patients and their families. They are dealing with so much, especially if the patient’s behavior changes as a result of their brain cancer. Yet they still pick themselves up and move forward. You see how families pull together to help, just as my own family did with my nephew.
I am also moved by the tremendous neurooncologists and care teams out there who invest their hearts and souls into their patients. It’s pretty remarkable to watch.
Beyond that, I am struck by the perseverance and resilience of researchers and everyone involved in getting new treatments developed. There are so many instances where a new treatment did not pan out, but these researchers are not losing hope or giving up trying new strategies.
Beyond one-on-one help, are there any general resources you often recommend?
Yes, there’s a group on Facebook where people with glioblastoma and other types of brain cancer provide each other with some wonderful community and comradery. People who have never met each other will give encouragement if, say, someone feels so tired they don’t feel like getting up to eat. I often recommend this group because many patients are alone, and they need to understand that, yes, others are going through this too, and here’s what you can do to mitigate it.
I also often recommend other nonprofits, such as our partners at the National Brain Tumor Society or the Musella Foundation. These are groups with a similar philosophy as ours; wanting to find the right path for each patient that will push the envelope, if that’s what is needed for the best chance for successful treatment.
And truly, here at Cancer Commons, it’s a team effort. The industry just moves too fast for any one person to stay on top of it. So we work together as a team and with our partners to ultimately provide every patient with all the information they need.
What do you do in your spare time?
I’ve got my hands full with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, and we have lots of fun. There’s a lot of silliness and I get to be a big kid at heart with them. I also really enjoy exercise and will admit to some occasional serious binge-watching of certain TV programs.
And I enjoy the peacefulness of gardening. My brain has to go 100 miles an hour to assimilate so much information to help patients, so for my own mental wellbeing, I have to switch it off sometimes. I take a lot of solace in gardening and getting my children involved in it as well. They love it.