It’s time to welcome a new batch of researchers to the Cancer Research UK team. Here are some common themes they are researching, and how their work could help cancer patients in the future.
Targeting the faulty genetics of cancer
Dr Serena Nik-Zainal is exploring patterns of faults in DNA from cancer cells called signatures. This will help her understand how DNA is damaged inside cells, and how it’s repaired to help cells survive, which can lead to cancer.
Meanwhile, Dr Andrew Beggs, Dr Ross Carruthers, Dr Laureano de la Vega, and Dr Luca Magnani, are looking at the genetic changes that can help tumours become resistant to treatment.
Beggs is using mini lab-grown tumours called organoids to search for new drug targets to stop bowel cancer becoming resistant to treatment. Carruthers is exploring how brain tumours become resistant to radiotherapy. He’s trying to work out how cells from the most aggressive type of brain tumour, glioblastoma, are able to repair their DNA following radiotherapy and keep growing.
Transcription is a process that takes information from genes in our DNA to make proteins. de la Vega is looking at one molecule that controls transcription and has been thought of as protective against cancer. But recent research suggests in some situations it may actually help cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy – de la Vega is investigating how this happens. Finally, Magnani is looking at way in which some mutations in the tumours are able to turn their genes ‘on’ or ‘off’ to escape treatments and spread around the body, focussing on breast cancer.
Corrupting healthy cells
Many different types of cell live alongside cancer cells and inside tumours as they grow. Dr Ahsan Akram and Professor Tim Underwood are looking at cells called cancer associated fibroblasts, which can help tumours grow and spread.
While Akram is developing a new way to see these cells in lung cancer to help doctors to decide what treatment to give patients, Underwood is trying to understand how oesophageal cancer cells hijack neighbouring healthy cells, and how the genetic changes in the cancer cells help them to do this. Dr Chris Tape is also interested in how the genetic changes in cancer cells help them to corrupt the healthy fibroblast cells and immune cells, focussing on bowel cancer.
An immune attack
Recently, the immune system has emerged as a potentially powerful ally in tackling certain cancers. Dr Sheeba Irshad is investigating how immune cells move within tumours in the lab. By understanding the signals involved, she hopes to find a way to encourage particular immune cells to move into the tumour and kill the cancer cells.
Dr Tobias Janowitz is also investigating new ways to help the immune system tackle pancreatic cancer. He focuses on how tumours change the way that the body uses energy, which can lead to a wasting condition called cachexia. He wants to understand how this hinders the immune response to cancer, which allows the tumour to grow unchecked. By understanding more about these processes in the lab, he hopes to find a way to break this cycle and help tackle pancreatic cancer.
It’s in the blood
Blood stem cells must produce a constant supply of essential blood cells throughout a person’s lifetime, but when their DNA is damaged it can lead to blood cancers.
Dr Meng Wang is investigating how stem cell DNA can be damaged and fixed, which could point to the steps leading to cancer. Meanwhile, Dr Melinda Czeh is looking at how these stem cells change as people get older to try and understand how age increases the risk of acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
Dr Beth Payne is also looking at what happens as people age in relation to AML, having seen some common genetic faults in older people. She wants to understand how these changes can lead to cancer, which could help identify new potential drug targets.
Evolution of cancer
Cancers cells can be cunning, changing as they evolve and become resistant to treatment. Dr Jyoti Nangalia and Dr Andrea Sottoriva are each taking a different approach to studying this evolution, in the hope of finding new ways to stop cancer in its tracks.
Nangalia is looking for genes that are important in a cancer’s evolution. She wants to predict which patients may be at a higher risk of their disease evolving, giving doctors a head start in planning treatment. Sottoriva is trying to map cancer evolution by taking a mathematical and computational approach. He also wants to anticipate which drugs would be best to give as the disease changes, potentially helping to personalise treatment.
When studying a disease that affects so many people, looking for and studying common themes in the population can be incredibly helpful.
Dr David Muller is looking at large numbers of people with kidney cancer to solve some of the mysteries of the disease. For example, he’s investigating the so-called ‘obesity paradox’ – obesity increases the risk of developing kidney cancer, but kidney cancer patients who are obese appear to have a better prognosis than those of a healthy weight. By looking at large numbers of people with kidney cancer he hopes to gather enough information to help reveal why this is.
Dr Evropi Theodoratou and Dr Samantha Quaife are looking at screening, an important tool for detecting certain cancers early, when they’re easier to treat, or helping prevent the diseases altogether. Theodoratou wants to see if some people may benefit from entering bowel cancer screening earlier by identifying those who may be deemed at a higher risk than the general population.
There’s no national lung cancer screening programme in the UK, but there’s plenty of research going on to understand if there would be any benefit to introducing one. Quaife is investigating if people at high risk of lung cancer would go for screening if it was offered, and what barriers there may be to attending. Should a screening programme be introduced, this will help inform how invitations to screening could be designed to improve engagement by those at high risk and to minimise socioeconomic inequalities in participation.
Dr Harriet Walter is developing the skills to run early stage clinical trials for blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma as well other hard to treat cancers. Researchers like Walter play a vital role in getting new treatments tested, making sure they’re safe and effective, to give people with cancer more treatment options in the future.
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