As a first year PhD student, I can usually be found slaving away at the bench and looking after my fruit flies. But lately I’ve been leaving my natural habitat in favour of the park behind it.
My female lab mates and I have swapped lab coats and gloves for trainers and lycra, and are doing some serious running!
We’re women on a mission, and we will be joined by hundreds of other women in this park on July 14th – when we will run the Oxford Race for Life.
But when we’re not running around in lycra, we work in Professor Jordan Raff‘s lab in Oxford, studying how tiny structures inside cells called centrosomes are involved in cell division.
And, as I’ll explain below, this is a key process in cancer.
Understanding how cells divide
A dividing cell has two of these centrosomes, and they are important because, when a cell divides, they will each pull one complete set of chromosomes (which hold the cell’s DNA) into each of the new-born ‘daughter’ cells:
In this way, both daughter cells will inherit one complete copy of its parents DNA.
But cancer cells frequently have too many centrosomes – something that’s thought to be linked to the disease evolving and getting worse. Understanding how, and why, is a key priority for our lab, where we work with fruit flies, or to give them their full name, Drosophila melanogaster.
Drosophila scientists have developed many powerful methods of studying cells in the fly, and fly tissues and embryos are also well suited for sophisticated microscopy techniques, which allow us to directly look at normal and cancer cells.
Combined, these aspects make the fruit fly an amazingly powerful model for studying how cells divide and how this goes wrong in cancer.
In previous work, we have shown that fruit flies that have too many centrosomes, but are otherwise completely normal and healthy, often get cancer. The extra centrosomes seem to increase the rate that errors build up in their DNA.
They also make it more difficult for special cells called ‘stem cells’ to divide properly.
These problems mean that the fly loses control over the number of these stem cells, and we think this allows these cells to divide beyond their normal numbers and so potentially form cancer.
So from what we can tell, having too many centrosomes seems to be very bad news.
Towards new treatments
On the other hand, the good news is that having an abnormal number of centrosomes might allow us to distinguish cancer cells from normal cells. We hope that we will one day be able to use this difference specifically to kill cancer cells without harming normal cells.
One idea we’re working on is to prevent the extra centrosomes from “clustering”. Cancer cells often deal with the presence of extra centrosomes by clustering them into two groups, which make the cell behave as though it only has two centrosomes. This allows the process of cell division to happen normally.
If we can stop the extra centrosomes from clustering, the cell has trouble dividing and usually dies. We are working on ways of preventing cancer cells from clustering their extra centrosomes, in the hope that this will kill them.
If we can work out how to do this reliably in the lab, we might just be able to develop a new treatment for the disease.
Remembering why we do it
Working on such a detailed aspect of cancer, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Running the Race for Life is a good reminder that what we scientists do in the lab will further our understanding of cancer and, we hope, contribute to better diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients.
We are very grateful to Cancer Research UK and all the people who support it. Without them, we could not do our work, so we are always pleased to have the opportunity to raise more awareness about the charity and the science they support.
As the lab ladies, we also enjoy sharing running stories, choosing our outfits for the race (pink tutus!) and working on our fundraising (£1145 as I write this).
If you’d like to show your support for our team of running scientists, we have a fundraising page for our race: http://www.raceforlifesponsorme.org/are-we-there-yet44.
- Metta Pratt is a PhD student in Professor Jordan Raff’s lab in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford. The lab is largely funded by Cancer Research UK.