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Where are they now: Elizabeth Murchison

01 June 2020
Elizabeth Murchison

Professor of Comparative Oncology and Genetics, University of Cambridge

Alum years: 2001–2002

What do you currently do?

My laboratory investigates the evolution of transmissible cancers in dogs and Tasmanian devils. Transmissible cancers are malignant clones that spread between individuals via the transfer of living cancer cells through biting.

Our goal is to understand how these cancers arise, how they adapt and change, and how the host immune system responds.

What are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about saving Tasmanian devils from their devastating transmissible facial tumours.

Describe your research into Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease.

I started working on devils back in 2006 when I found a roadkill devil with a tumour on the way back from a bushwalk in a remote part of Tasmania.

I now investigate genome evolution in the two Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers. Although transmissible cancers are very rare, Tasmanian devils have bizarrely spawned two transmissible facial cancers within the last few decades. My research traces the evolutionary and geographical routes these cancers have taken since their origins.

What was the process of doing a TED talk?

It was terrifying. I knew I had just one shot to tell the story of the devils and their cancer to a huge global audience. My greatest fear was running over time.

What are your professional highlights?

The excitement that comes when tumours tell us new stories about cancer lineages. I always look forward to field trips trapping devils in Tasmania (which is also where I grew up).

I love working as part of an inter-disciplinary team of researchers working on different aspects of the devil disease. I gain the most satisfaction from seeing my students and postdocs making discoveries of their own.

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