A former North Berwick High School student has been at the forefront of groundbreaking research into new treatments for ovarian cancer.

The project was undertaken by NHS Tayside, with scientists looking at how ovarian cancer cells become resistant to treatment and how this could be reversed.

North Berwick-born Dr Hugh Nicholson played a key role in the study, designing, optimising and carrying out all the experiments, which formed part of his 85,000-word thesis.

Dr Nicholson, 27, grew up on Dirleton Avenue with mum Audrey, dad Brian and sister Mary, attending the secondary school before going to the University of Dundee in 2012 to study biological science.

He said: “When I was studying my degree, I was involved in a small 10-week research project looking into drug resistance in ovarian cancer at the Jacqui Wood Cancer Centre.

“When I completed my degree, an opportunity arose with the same lab group, led by Dr Gillian Smith, to apply for a PhD project, funded by Medical Research Scotland.

“I hadn’t originally known what I wanted to do after my degree, so I decided that I should apply and see where things went.

“Having now concluded my research and completed my PhD degree, it is a very nice culmination to all my hard work to have some of my research published in a prestigious journal such as the British Journal of Cancer. Doing a PhD is a very exhausting journey – so it’s all worth it in the end.”

Speaking of the research, Dr Nicholson stressed the important part that patients at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee played by donating “precious samples” that formed the backbone of the study.

Through the analysis of these samples, scientists were able to discover how cells become resistant to chemotherapy drugs and how they can become “resensitised” to create more effective treatments for the disease.

Dr Smith, senior lecturer in cellular medicine at the University of Dundee’s School of Medicine, praised Dr Nicholson’s contribution to the study, saying that he had helped scientists better understand drug resistance in ovarian cancer.

She said: “This work, carried out by PhD student Hugh Nicholson and colleagues, highlights the benefit of combining laboratory-based and clinical research in our translational ovarian cancer research programme.

“Understanding why some patients stop responding (become resistant) to chemotherapy allows us to extend our research programme to predict which patients are most likely to respond to treatment and to propose new drug combinations to combat treatment resistance for future clinical trial evaluation.

“If we can understand how resistance develops, we can think about new treatment approaches using additional drugs to block the resistance mechanism, so effectively developing new combination chemotherapy approaches where one drug kills the cancer cells and the other drug blocks resistance.”

Dr Nicholson, who now lives in Glasgow, stressed that the research he worked on was still in its infancy but he was delighted to be involved in a project that could lead to saving lives.

He said: “It’s important to stress that this research remains in its initial stages and so far remains a laboratory model. There would be a lot of further research required, for example by pharmaceutical companies, to bring this to the beginnings of a clinical setting. However, the patients of today are benefiting from the research of the past, so some day this may lead to something – so it’s great to have been a part of the initial studies looking into these potential treatment options.”

East Lothian Courier: Hugh Nicholson

Nicola McDowell, head of education at East Lothian Council, also praised Dr Nicholson’s influential role in the study and hoped that his example would inspire others across the county.

She said: “Teaching staff enjoy hearing about the often diverse routes their students follow when leaving school, which may be starting employment, setting up their own business, travelling or pursuing further or high education.

“Hugh’s participation in this groundbreaking research project has the potential to have such a positive impact on ovarian cancer treatment and we wish him well with his studies.”

Dr Nicholson also thanked his high school teacher for launching him on his career path.

He said: “I didn’t really know what I wished to do after leaving school, but I enjoyed biology the most – taught by a wonderful teacher, Mrs McLaren – so I decided I should go to university and study a general biology degree.

“I hope that other students feel they can follow their interests and see what happens.”