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Notes from the NCRI conference (day 1)

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

4 November 2012

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Joan Massague at the NCRI 2012

Professor Joan Massague speaking at the 2012 NCRI Cancer Conference

It’s November, which means we’re in Liverpool again for the annual NCRI Cancer Conference.

Researchers from around the world will be spending the next three days in the BT Convention Centre on the River Mersey, discussing the latest and greatest developments in cancer research.

Tomorrow the conference really gets going, with a packed agenda planned – but we’ve heard several interesting talks this afternoon already.

Molecular understanding

Today’s proceedings kicked off with a session chaired by Cancer Research UK’s Professor Gerard Evan, and a pair of highly technical yet absorbing presentations on our ever-increasing understanding of the molecules that drive cancer, .

First, how breast cancers spread. Leading US cancer researcher Professor Joan Massagué  (whom Professor Evan as described as “one of his heroes”) discussed the latest understanding of why some breast cancers spread to the bone, whereas others spread to the lungs.

Cancers, Massagué said, engage in a molecular ‘conversation’ with their surroundings, that shapes their ultimate fates. Some cancers – possibly by chance – secrete molecules similar to those released inside the bones, causing their surroundings to reply with more ‘bone-like’ molecules.

As this dialogue builds, the cancers become dependent on these signals. The consequence: cells that break away from these tumours are more likely to survive when they reach the bones. A similar phenomenon drives cancers that spreads to the lungs. Understanding exactly how this process works is yielding clues for new treatments.

Next, in a Superstorm Sandy-induced change to the programme, Professor Owen Sansom, deputy director of our Beatson Institute in Glasgow, ably stepped in for the absent Dr Neal Rosen, currently stranded in the States.

Professor Sansom’s major research focus is bowel cancer – particularly the faulty pathways that exist inside bowel cancer cells, and how these affect their growth and survival. A particular feature of bowel cancer cells – discovered 25 years ago by Cancer Research UK researchers – is damage to a gene called APC. Sansom’s group has been trying to work out the consequence of this damage, and how it can be exploited to find new treatments.

They’ve recently shown how other mutations inside bowel cancer cells, in key genes like p53 and Ras (of which more below), help the cells avoid being targeted by certain drugs. Sansom thinks he’s found a way round this, at least in theory.

What do points win?

Award for Prof Owen Sansom

Professor Sansom receives his award

For the third year running, our chief executive Dr Harpal Kumar presented a series of awards, recognising top researchers in the field.

Firstly, Cancer Research UK’s Future Leader prizes were awarded to Professor Sansom and breast cancer researcher Dr Jason Carroll, of our Cambridge Research Institute.

Both were delighted to be recognised, with Carroll remarking that it was down to the “hard work and dedication of my lab and the continuous support from Cancer Research UK”.

This year’s “lifetime achievement award”, recognising “outstanding achievement in the field of cancer research”, went to Professor Sir David Lane, who discovered the ‘tumour suppressor’ molecule p53. This monumental discovery in the 1970s revolutionised our understanding of how cancer cells grow and divide, as we’ve written about before.

In his presentation to mark the award, Professor Lane looked back on his career so far – and gave us a glimpse into the future. It’s a future in which he believes we will be able to “drug the undruggable”: molecules like p53, which are involved in many cancers but have proven stubbornly difficult to target with drugs. To younger researchers, Professor Lane’s advice was simple – “never believe those who say it can’t be done”. He outlined recent work in trying to target not just p53, but other oft-considered ‘undruggable’ molecules Myc and Ras.

He estimates that there are 25,000 molecules, involved in a whole manner of different processes in the body, including the development of cancer, which by conventional definitions could be considered ‘undruggable’.

But – crucially – state-of-the-art drug discovery methods, and advances in chemistry such as the development of molecules called ‘stapled peptides’ means that “the undruggable universe is shrinking”. He went on to discuss his recent laboratory research, which is taking us tantalisingly close to blocking p53.

It was also fitting that Professor Lane paused to reflect on his motivations. Being funded by Cancer Research UK had led to the opportunity to meet our dedicated supporters, something he says made a huge, and positive, impact on his work.

We’ll be back tomorrow with more from what’s shaping up to be a fascinating conference.

Henry and Olly