Healthcare & Sciences

Professor Dr Serena Nik-Zainal

A highly acclaimed scientist, Professor Dr Serena Nik-Zainal is known for having made outstanding contributions to breakthrough efforts in cancer research


Professor Dr Serena Nik-Zainal is an award-winning scientist who is recognised for her work in cancer genome interpretation. She is the principal researcher of a team that led the largest-ever study to sequence the whole genomes of breast cancer to better understand the genetic mutations that cause the disease to unlock new methods of treatment.

In 2019, Professor Dr Serena Nik-Zainal became the first woman and second Asian to be awarded the prestigious Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Award. Her notable efforts in cancer research were also recognised by UK’s Royal Society, which awarded her the Francis Crick Medal and Lecture 2022.

Growing up in Malaysia, she won a scholarship to study medicine at University of Cambridge in the UK. She began her research work into breast cancer pursuing her PhD at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. Using whole genome sequencing, she demonstrated for the first time that mutational signatures—or imprints from mutation process in the development of cancer—are present in tumours, and also discovered a novel phenomenon of localised hypermutation called kataegis.

In 2013, Professor Dr Serena Nik-Zainal was awarded a Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellowship and continued her work in cancer genome interpretation, with computational approaches and experimentation using cell-based model systems. Later, with the support of Cancer Research UK, she moved to the Advanced Clinician Scientist fellowship from the University of Cambridge to accelerate the translation of her discoveries towards cancer therapies, and to further her research into the cause of mutagenesis.

She is married to geriatrician and stroke physician Dr Eoin O’Brien, and has two teenage children.

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Did you know?

Professor Dr Serena Nik-Zainal cardiologist father, the late Datuk Dr Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Abdul, founded the National Heart Institute (IJN) and was part of the team involved in the country’s first coronary bypass surgery in 1982. 

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