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Cancer living outside the body, unravelling a cellular mystery and targeting ‘sleeping’ cancer cells: our latest cutting-edge science projects

by Catherine Pickworth | Analysis

14 April 2017

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Our Pioneer Award uses a ‘Dragons Den-style’ approach to find new research ideas with big potential.

Researchers are invited to pitch their project so a panel of experts can hear why it will make a difference to people affected by cancer, and make a funding decision there and then.

We’ve recently funded 3 new projects and here’s what they’ll be working on.

Histopathology of axillary lymph node metastasis from breast cancer

Cells within the axillary (armpit) lymph node Kalnisha Naidoo

Studying cancer in a ‘living’ system – Dr Kalnisha Naidoo

Dr Kalnisha Naidoo, who works at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is developing a new ‘living’ technique that will help scientists to study breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes found in the armpit.

The study will be done with the help of patients who are having these lymph nodes removed as part of their treatment. With their permission, cancer-containing lymph nodes will be kept ‘alive’ outside the body. The technique will allow Naidoo to understand more about the biology of the cancer cells that have spread, and help find new ways to target them.

This ‘living’ system will also be a tool that other researchers can use to test new drugs to treat the spread of breast cancer to these lymph nodes.

Unravelling a cellular mystery – Dr Stephen Royle

Chromosomes mismatching

Chromosomes mismatching (blue) Cristina Gutiérrez Caballero

As a cell divides, it sets out to make two identical new cells. And just like the parent cell, each new cell should have 23 pairs of chromosomes. But when cells make mistakes, the new cells can end up with unequal numbers of chromosomes.

Scientists have seen this mismatch of chromosomes in around 9 in 10 tumours and around half of blood cancers, but don’t know how the mismatching happens, or its exact role in cancer.

Dr Stephen Royle at the University of Warwick is trying to unravel this mystery.

“My team’s work aims to better understand how this process going wrong can cause cancer. Ultimately our future goal would be to see if drugs can be developed and used to stop the cells dividing unequally and potentially stop cancer cells forming. Or, if they could be used to cause them to divide unequally in a more controlled manner, forcing the cancer cells to die.”

Helping cancer survivors – Professor Thomas von Zglinicki

Many people who survive cancer have had radiotherapy as part of their treatment.

Thomas von Zglinicki

Professor Thomas von Zglinicki

But radiotherapy can have long term side effects, including an increased risk of age-related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, and lower overall life expectancy.

Scientists believe this could be down to these survivors’ cells ageing prematurely, making them frail. This has been linked to a process called cell senescence where cells enter a ‘sleep-like’ state and stop dividing.

But at the moment there is no way to stop this happening to cancer survivors. At Newcastle University, Professor Thomas von Zglinicki is trying to change that.

He wants to test if targeting these ‘sleeping’ cells in mice helps improve their lifespan and reduce their frailty. If it does, the next step will be to investigate whether this might help people with cancer.

These projects investigating ‘sleeping cells’ and studying ‘living’ cancer outside the human body might seem mind-boggling. But that’s exactly the point of the Pioneer Award. And we’re really excited to see how these projects turn out, and will be following them closely.


  • These projects are examples of those funded by our Pioneer Award. Applications are welcomed to the Pioneer Award scheme from any scientists, regardless of discipline, career stage or track record.
  • You can read about our previous Pioneer Awards, funded in July 2016, March 2016 and November 2015 in the links provided.
  • If you’re a researcher you can find out more about this award on our website.