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Highlights from the NCRI conference (day 3)

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

5 November 2013

1 comment 1 comment

A blustery Liverpool is hosting the UK’s biggest cancer conference. We’re three days in and the fascinating talks have continued apace. Before getting into our highlights of today’s discussions, here’s our round-up of the headlines triggered by research from the conference:

  • The BBC wrote about early data suggesting that a genetic test can tell apart aggressive and slow-growing prostate tumours
  • They also had a story about a computer program that could help busy GPs spot cancer symptoms
  • And The Telegraph wrote about a new drug for women with advanced ovarian cancer.

Molecular toolkits

The first talk of the day came from Dr Stephen West from the Cancer Research UK London Institute, who’s one of the world’s leading experts on the molecular “toolkits” that repair damaged DNA. He and his team have been using high-powered electron microscopes and X-ray crystallography to spy on individual molecules of BRCA2, a heart-shaped protein that is a vital part of the repair process.

Dr West covered some of the “molecular gymnastics” that BRCA2 gets up to in cells as it works to fix DNA damage. He also discussed some of the other key players involved in one particular aspect of repair – untangling the junctions that arise when two strands of DNA get twisted together during the repair process.

Damaged DNA – and failing to fix it properly – is a major cause of cancer, so Dr West’s work is helping to reveal what’s going on at the molecular level, furthering our understanding and opening up potential avenues for future therapies.

Evolution of tumours

Picking up from Professor Charlie Swanton’s talk yesterday, a session humorously titled “We need to talk about clonal diversity” discussed how to measure the huge genetic complexity (diversity) of tumours, and how they evolve in the body.

It was particularly interesting to see how mathematical analysis of CT scans from patients or microscope slides of tumour samples could reveal the levels of diversity inside tumours. It looks like patients whose tumours have the highest levels of diversity tend to do worst, suggesting that these techniques could help doctors to choose the best treatment approach.

Yet researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how to measure genetic diversity within tumours, what it means, and what to do about it. Dr Florian Markowetz, from our Cambridge Research Institute, drew an apt comparison with Darwin, the grandfather of evolutionary theory, noting that at this stage cancer researchers are like Darwin stepping off the Beagle, gathering finches up and noticing the differences between them.

Today’s scientists are gathering lots of data and making lots of observations, and hopefully soon we’ll see it come together in a detailed theory of cancer evolution.

Microbiome and bowel cancer

One of the stand-out facts of the day came from a morning session about the microbiome and bowel cancer. The term microbiome refers to the many different bacteria that live inside our bodies – research shows that these organisms have important effects on our health.

Introducing the session, the host informed the audience that there are more bacteria living in the average human body than there are people on the planet. And there are at least 10 times as many bacteria in your body as human cells.

Three fascinating speakers then went on to discuss research to answer questions such as what is the bacterial composition of a ‘healthy’ gut and whether it is possible to alter the microbiome to change disease risk.

Dr Stephen O’Keefe from the University of Pittsburgh discussed how geographical differences in diet contribute to the major differences in bowel cancer rates. He explained how native Africans have diets with much more fibre and less red meat and fats compared with African Americans (and Western populations in general). Native Africans also have much lower rates of bowel cancer and have a completely different spectrum of bacteria in their gut.

He went on to describe a study that showed how native Africans who were switched to a more ‘Western’ diet for only two weeks profoundly affected their gut microbiome – and the same was true for Westerners who switched to an African diet.

Clearly what we eat affects our microbiome and our risk of bowel cancer – exactly how has yet to be completely understood.

Surgeon James Kinross from Imperial College London described the bowel and microbiome as a “complex chemical superhighway”, and described research to understand the role of a specific bacteria called fusobacteria in bowel cancer. (We covered some research on fusobacteria earlier in the year.)

And Julian Marchesi from the University of Cardiff, in his talk about the use of high-tech technologies to uncover how the microbiome contributes to disease, summarised a highly-engaging session when he said that researchers are “only touching the tip of the iceberg” in terms of our understanding of the microbiome and it’s role in disease.

The only way is up

A fascinating afternoon session on cell polarity (how cells know which way is up) was chaired by Dr Buzz Baum, and attracted speakers from exotic locations such as Spain, Canada and Wales. Studying cancer is not only about unpicking complex molecular interactions and the genes involved, but also about understanding how the very shape and orientation of cells and their physical interactions are vital for organs to stay healthy.

Kicking the session off, Dr Fernando Martin-Belmonte demonstrated how the precision machinery involved in helping cells divide must be perfectly aligned, or else cancer-causing mistakes can develop. His research brilliantly demonstrated this by making miniature living organs in the lab and then misaligning their machinery. The outcome was some very misshapen cancer-like organoids.

Dr Helen McNeill then introduced us to some very important molecules called Fat-cadherins (aptly named as they are massive). Her exciting work showed that these mighty molecules are essential for orientating cells and surprisingly they do this by influencing our mitochondria (the batteries that power our cells).

Finally, Dr Alan Clarke provided what he termed “some light cancer relief” and told us of how he has come to realise that cell orientation is much more relevant to his cancer research than he first thought. The audience got to see that healthy cells sometimes deliberately divide unevenly, and accidental even-division can actually lead to far too many copies of stem cells, with disastrous, cancer-causing consequences.

Cell polarity is a rapidly emerging field in biology (one we’ve written about before). By learning how cells know which way is up, biologists could open up entire new areas for cancer treatments.

One more day to go

It’s been a frenetic few days, and there’s more to come tomorrow on the final day of the conference. Look out for our final report tomorrow evening.


Images courtesy of National Cancer Research Institute, via Flickr.


  • Gina
    6 November 2013

    Thank you for keeping us up to date with the conference and making the fascinating topics so accessible – it’s fantastic to be able to begin to understand the work we are helping to fundraise for, and to have cancer demystified.


  • Gina
    6 November 2013

    Thank you for keeping us up to date with the conference and making the fascinating topics so accessible – it’s fantastic to be able to begin to understand the work we are helping to fundraise for, and to have cancer demystified.