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Recently funded research – understanding what makes cancer tick

by Alan Worsley | Analysis

2 October 2015

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Thanks to your support, we’re able to fund research into many different aspects of cancer, from treating it to diagnosing it earlier and developing strategies to try and reduce the number of people getting the disease.

We assemble panels of experts from a range of different fields and they scrutinise applications from the wider research community before deciding what to fund.

Our Science Committee, is responsible for funding a broad range of research looking into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of cancer so that we can come up with new ideas for treating it or spotting it early.

The Committee meets twice a year. Here are a few highlights from the Science Committee research projects we funded in April:

How cells repair faulty DNA

Professor Steve Jackson

Professor Steve Jackson, University of Cambridge – £4.1m

Professor Jackson is working with yeast and animal cells to uncover how damaged DNA is repaired. Cancer develops from mistakes in our DNA. So knowing which molecules repair these mistakes and which ones are critical for a cancer cell’s survival could lead to new treatments.

Professor Jackson’s previous research in this area directly led to the development of a drug called olaparib, which has been shown to improve things for people with certain forms of breast and ovarian cancers.

Understanding what makes cancer develop

Professor Gerard Evan, University of Cambridge – £3.4m

Professor Gerard Evan

Professor Evan is looking at how changing the expression of a gene called Myc, could affect lung and pancreatic cancers. Myc is a core component of a cell’s ability to replicate and in many cancers is mutated to be continuously switched on.

Professor Evan will use genetically engineered mice to selectively switch different genes on or off to observe what happens to Myc under different conditions. Using these switchable genetics they might be able to identify potential drug targets.

Using chemistry to stop cancer proteins from forming

Professor Ali Tavassoli, University of Southampton – £1.22m

Professor Tavassoli has received one of Cancer Research UK’s prestigious Programme Foundation Awards and is developing chemicals to interfere with the proteins that cancer cells need to survive – particularly how these proteins stick together. One of these is a molecule involved in telling cells to grow. This molecule, known as KRAS, is faulty in many cancers – including some of the most difficult to treat forms of the disease.

Professor Ali Tavassoli

Finding ways to stop faulty KRAS from passing on growth signals by blocking it from interacting with other proteins could one day help patients with these types of cancers.

Dr Tavassoli will be using new technology to find chemicals that stop signalling molecules known as phosphoinsitide-3-kinases, PI3K, from working with faulty KRAS to keep cancer cells alive.

Other projects funded include:

  • Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke works on blood vessel formation in tumours. Her lab has previously found that a molecule called focal adhesion kinase, or FAK for short, can affect how well the cancer responds to treatment.
  • Professor Adrian Harris from the University of Oxford is looking at how tumours grow blood vessels
  • Dr Stephen Tait from the University of Glasgow also received a Programme Foundation Award and is investigating how cells self destruct. He is looking to see whether cells attempting to self destruct and failing actually leads to more DNA damage, and potentially cancer.
  • Dr Chris Bakal from The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is another Programme Foundation award winner who is examining cell shape and movement. His group is finding out which molecules may be important for helping breast cancer cells spread.

As well as funding this sort of fundamental cancer science, the Committee also oversees other exciting new areas of research – including the multidisciplinary and immunology awards we’ve written about previously. We’ll be covering research funded under those schemes in future updates.