‘Know your enemy’ is a quote that rings true for scientists studying cancer. And in order to beat the disease they need to understand the weaknesses at its heart.

Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke is Professor of Angiogenesis at the Barts Cancer Institute in London, and she has dedicated her career to studying one of these weak spots – the blood vessels that are every tumour’s lifeline. Without a blood supply, a tumour can’t grow much larger than the head of a pin – so can we target these blood vessels and stop the disease in its tracks?

A few years ago, drugs that block the growth of new blood vessels, known as ‘angiogenesis inhibitors’, looked as if they could be the next big thing in cancer treatment by providing a way to starve tumours and halt their growth. But several studies cast doubt on this theory, showing that in some cases the drugs could actually encourage the growth of tumours rather than slowing it.

This was a blow to the field – but luckily cancer researchers don’t give up that easily. Professor Hodivala-Dilke is forging ahead to understand exactly how blood vessels grow, and she’s hoping to find new ways to target this process and develop more effective treatments.

Cancer Research UK: What brought you into cancer research?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: There are lots of reasons. When I was a child I had a neighbour who was a researcher, who really inspired me. And my parents were both very keen on drawing and working in the garden, so they showed me how to observe things – that got me interested in understanding how things work. And then, like everybody else, we knew someone who had cancer. That decided me very early on – I was only in my teens – I really wanted to work in cancer research.

Cancer Research UK: What does your research focus on?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: We work on something that’s relevant to many different types of cancer. For any tissue to grow in your body – your heart, your liver, even a tumour – it has to have a blood supply. We’re interested in how that blood supply feeds a tumour. The theory is that if we can kill those blood vessels and stop them from growing, we could actually starve the tumour to death. That’s the basis of our research.

Cancer Research UK: What are you focusing on at the moment?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: We’re particularly interested in how the blood vessels’ structure is maintained, and how the cells of the blood vessels stick together and attach to their environment. This is controlled by sticky adhesion molecules that are found on the surface of the blood vessel cells. We’ve got some evidence that if you can stop some of these sticky molecules from working, then you can influence how the blood vessels grow and how the cancer grows.

One molecule we’re studying at the moment is called focal adhesion kinase – if you block this molecule you can actually stop the blood vessels from growing and stop the tumour from growing. So that’s our most recent exciting finding, and it looks like we might be able to apply this idea in the clinic to treat patients, which is fantastic.

Cancer Research UK: There are already some cancer drugs that work in a similar way, such as bevacizumab and sunitinib – why do we need more?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: Because they don’t work in all cancers. And even within cancers of a certain type, they don’t always work. With some of the drugs that are available at the moment, the patient can stop responding to them, so although they work initially they don’t work long-term.

The drugs that are out there at the moment are proof of principle that this sort of approach is going to work. But what we need now is to be able to refine that technique, and do it even better.

Cancer Research UK: Do you see these sorts of drugs working alongside traditional chemotherapy in the future?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: Yes, absolutely. The idea is that we attack the tumour with chemotherapy, and at the same time we starve it of all the nutrients the blood vessels are taking to it – so it’s a double hit.

Cancer Research UK: Where do you see your research going in the next five years?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: I would love to be able to contribute to a drug or a treatment that has gone through to the clinic, and really is helping people with cancer. That’s always been my goal, and I think we are getting closer and closer to it. Being able to do the basic research, and apply it and bring it into the clinic, that’s my dream. It really is.

Cancer Research UK: How do you work with the other researchers at Barts?

Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke: We rely very much on being here at the Barts Cancer Institute because we have access to the translational department here, who help to develop our lab research into treatments for patients. We’re always in communication with clinicians, discussing projects even before we’ve started them, so that we know we’re going in the right direction.

Cancer research, to me, is not about just doing experiments. It’s about having a flavour of a whole system, all the way from the patient right down to the molecules that are controlling cancer. And to do that, I think, you need to be in a place where you have all of that together.

We’re based at a hospital, we’re surrounded by clinicians who work with the patients, and we have the expertise to do the science. And it’s that combination that’s essential to doing really excellent cancer research.