Credit: The Royal Society/Anne Purkiss

We recently appointed Professor Karen Vousden as our new chief scientist, previously director of our Beatson Institute in Glasgow since 2003. She has spent the last 30 years at the forefront of research studying one of the most important molecules in cancer, called p53. Her team has pinpointed key signals that help p53 protect cells from becoming cancerous. And their research has laid the groundwork for what could become new treatments. Now, taking on her new role, Professor Vousden will also oversee the scientific direction of Cancer Research UK. So we caught up with her to get a sneak peak at what this might involve, and what she sees as the hot topics for future research.

Cancer Research UK: What do we now know about cancer that wasn’t known 10 years ago?

Professor Vousden: We’ve learnt that cancer is a very complicated disease. Now that may sound obvious, but in recent years I think research has really hammered home just how complicated it can be. We’re now beginning to understand that each individual tumour is different. And we’re starting to appreciate just how diverse cancers can be between patients, even those that develop in the same tissues and organs within the body.

It’s also becoming clear that a tumour isn’t just made up of cancer cells. There are a whole host of other cells that may be recruited or changed by the tumour cells to help them grow and spread. And it’s this complex ecosystem of cells and molecules that all come together to help tumours grow and evolve.

The best example of this in recent years is the emergence of immunotherapy. Our understanding of the role the immune system plays in cancer has grown massively. And thanks to research into how immune cells react to cancer, we now have some very exciting treatments available. This has been, and will go on to be, especially important for some cancers where progress has been slow.

Cancer Research UK: What have been the major scientific developments behind this progress?

Professor Vousden: The cost of doing challenging technological things like reading a cell’s entire DNA sequence, or monitoring the proteins and molecules it produces, has plummeted. And this has allowed scientists to ask bigger questions than ever before.

We can now more closely follow the genetic changes that fuel a cancer’s growth. And we can do that with many more samples than we could previously, allowing us to begin piecing together the complexity of cancer.

On top of this, exciting new ways of editing a cell’s DNA in the lab have made it possible to precisely test how gene faults we might see in a patient affect the way a cell behaves.

And this can then all be analysed and interpreted together thanks to better ways of handling the ‘Big Data’ that this type of research produces.

Cancer Research UK: What do you think will be the hot topics in research over the next 10 years?

Professor Vousden: For many years now my own lab, along with colleagues at the Beatson Institute, have been studying how cancer cells feed themselves, and how they make all the complex building blocks that are needed to make more cancer cells. And I think these processes, collectively called cancer metabolism, will become particularly important over the next few years.

We’re finding that this is another area where the world around tumour cells – what’s known as the tumour microenvironment – could have a big part to play too.

And I think this appreciation of cancer being not just rogue cells, but an entire rogue system of different cells and molecules, will become one of the biggest focuses in research.

I also think there is a huge amount still to learn about how the immune system recognises cancer. And the exciting pace of discoveries in this area will continue over the coming years as scientists learn how to better harness the power of the immune system in killing cancer cells.

This has to be the focus of cancer immunology research, ensuring that the truly impressive responses we see with immunotherapy in some patients can be achieved for as many people as possible.

Cancer Research UK: What research will need to be done to understand and tackle this?

Professor Vousden: The challenge for scientists will be bringing together areas of research that may have previously been seen as very different, and then working together.

It’s this type of multidisciplinary approach that will define research over the next few years.

This will require us to take a more holistic view of cancer. And we’ll need to find new ways to study all the different cells and molecules that make up a tumour.

There are already some new, exciting ways of growing these components together as 3D ‘mini-tumours’ in the lab. But this technology will have to become even more advanced, incorporating immune cells and the various energy sources that tumour cells thrive on.

This, alongside advanced animal models that more closely mirror human tumours, will be vital in accelerating progress. And this is especially true for diseases such as pancreatic and oesophageal cancer, where survival has remained stubbornly low.

Cancer Research UK: Where could this research take us?

Professor Vousden: High-quality research really lays the foundations for what will go on to become the tests and treatments that patients need.

And new lab technology and approaches looking to detect tumour DNA or cancer cells in blood samples is one area that’s particularly exciting.

Lab science will be vital in making sure these tests are accurate enough to be assessed in clinical trials and, hopefully, go on to help detect cancer earlier and monitor the disease in those who are diagnosed.

Scientists are also gathering a more complex picture of the differences between tumours. And this type of advanced analysis, including searching for faulty genes, should help work out which patients will benefit from certain treatments. It will also be critical for understanding how tumours evolve and why they can develop resistance to drugs that had previously been working well.

Research like this will have a vital role to play in working out why certain treatments work for some patients and not for others, making treatment more personalised. This is something that is particularly important for immunotherapy, for example.

But, crucially, what connects all these areas is a need to ensure the work that is carried out in the lab feeds directly into the clinic. This, most importantly, is how we’ll make sure these technologies are made available to the patients that need them.

Cancer Research UK: What are your ambitions for Cancer Research UK in terms of science?

Professor Vousden: I would like to make sure we continue to support research aimed at understanding the fundamental biology of cancer cells.

In doing so, we can be sure that our clinical research and trials are based on solid foundations.

I also want to see us increase the amount of science we do internationally, and make sure the relationships and collaborations we have with scientists around the world are strong. I think a big part of this will also involve encouraging researchers to work with colleagues they may not have worked with before.

By bringing together physicists and biologists; engineers and mathematicians, I really believe we can speed up progress in cancer across all areas, from prevention to diagnosis and treatment.

This, in my opinion, can only be achieved if we also continue to promote and support the next generation of scientists working in the lab. And this can’t just involve those we would classically define and ‘cancer researchers’.

Cancer Research UK is an exciting place for young scientists to learn their trade. And I’m looking forward to being part of achieving these ambitious goals.

Interview conducted by Nick Peel