Statistics have shown fifty percent of cancer patients will survive for at least ten years or be cured but researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) are determined to make further progress through their discoveries.
The ICR headquarters in Kensington is one of the world’s most influential cancer research organisations. It is the top academic research centre in the UK, a charity and postgraduate college.
KCW Today visited the ICR to talk to some of their researchers about their work in advances in cancer treatments. The team of biologists, chemists and computational scientists use state-of-the-art equipment to develop targeted therapies for those who do not successfully respond to standardised treatment
Chris Bakal, George Poulogiannis and Rachel Natrajan were the three scientists who took the time to show us on a tour of the ICR laboratories. Their pioneering work included smart knife technology which demonstrates the importance of diet in affecting the body’s response to cell invasion. The use of 3D ‘mini tumours’ to investigate the genes driving aggressive cancers and microscopic imaging for understanding the shape-shifting nature of cancer cells were also showcased.
New research by Chris Bakal, head of the Dynamical Cell Systems Team at the ICR aims to understand the ‘metastasis’ process; where cells change shape in order to spread around the body, turning the disease from being curable to incurable, Bakal told KCW Today.
To study cancer cell shape, his team uses technology to remove one gene at a time. Using robotic microscopes they then take millions of pictures of these cells, which are analysed with image processing algorithms, breaking down what is going on and highlighting genes researchers should be looking at.
Bakal said: “You can think of the body like a maze that cancer cells have to go through by squeezing through holes, twisting around corners, or stretching across gaps.
“We found hundreds of genes that we think are going to be very important for regulating cell shape.
“For some genes we can then develop a drug to target it, and freeze the cancer cells in their tracks.”
These electrifying microscopic structures captured by the robotic machinery are ironic in their extraordinary visual beauty, delicate folds and vivid colours which contrasts to their deadly nature.
Bakal pointed out that whilst cancer is a very multifaceted disease, each cancer ‘probably metastases’, only in ‘slightly different ways’ which means targeting this ‘very consistent pattern across nature’ could be a breakthrough for cancer research.
He later showed the lattice light sheet microscope, used in his laboratory which reveals details of cellular structures that are not visible using normal light. It uses laser, ‘Bessel beams’ to interrogate proteins within cells and work out the drug molecules which might block their activity to defeat cancer.
Dr George Poulogiannis is the Team Leader of the Signalling and Cancer Metabolism group in the Division of Cancer Biology.
His research on ‘intelligent knife technology’ could ‘revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat tumours’.
His collaboration with Professor Zoltan Takats’ team at Imperial College using this electro surgical equipment may reveal more about cancer sub-types, aside from its current application for identifying whether a tissue is cancerous or not.
This means a sample of a patient’s tumour could be analysed at the time of diagnosis or surgery and the biology of the tumour could guide the therapeutic strategy to treat the patient, thereby eliminating any chances of the tumour coming back. It has now been implemented in the laboratory for a clinical trial, differentiating between benign and cancerous tumours based on their lipid composition.
“Cells have the ability to get fatty acids either from the environment; the food or diet, but they can also synthesise these themselves,” explained Dr Poulogiannis.
He pointed out that measuring the tumour’s metabolism could help doctors decide whether to alter a patient’s diet, if they find it could play a role in the success of a cancer treatment:
“A therapy may only work when we deprive a patient from dietary fats.”
“If cancer cells rewire their metabolism, they can evade the immune response.”
For example, some cancer drugs work better in the ketogenic diet of low carbohydrates and high protein, according to Poulogiannis.
How cancer cells consume and process these fats is central to his work and this new tool could bring him closer to finding out the key nutrients which fuel cancer growth. Poulogiannis could generate a fresh hypothesis for developing targeted therapies and improving drug efficiency.
Dr Rachel Natrajan is Team Leader of the Functional Genomics Team at the ICR.
Her latest research interrogates the function of particular genes in breast cancer cells which might be driving more aggressive types. By targeting these alterations, this has potential to improve the effectiveness of treatment or identify new treatments for these forms of breast cancer.
Natrajan’s laboratory mimics the body’s conditions by taking a patient’s biopsy and growing a miniature tumour three dimensionally out of the patient’s cancer cells.This 3D technique reflects the cells structure ‘more accurately’ than 2D and by altering the genetic code of the cells in each mini tumour, they can see how each gene affects the cancer’s development.
“We’re interested in those which promote growth when you lose the particular gene via mutation.”
The ICR researchers can then look for drugs that might treat the cancer by stopping this gene from promoting growth of the cancer.
This institution recently announced Protein Dickkopf 3 (DKK3) influences tumour progression. Dr Fernando Calvo, from Spain has identified this invasion of signalling pathways activates YAP/TAZ proteins which promote cancerous growth and blocking this could prevent pro-cancer signalling and subsequent cell corruption.