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Q&A: Owen Sansom on stepping up as Director of our CRUK Beatson Institute

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

2 November 2017

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CRUK Beatson Institute


In September we appointed Professor Owen Sansom Director of our CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow. We caught up with Owen to ask him about his plans for the Institute, and what’s exciting him in cancer research.

Congratulations on your new role! What’s your vision for the CRUK Beatson Institute?

We’re going to focus on 2 main questions in cancer research:

1) how do cancer cells grow (integrating work on protein synthesis, autophagy, metabolism with cell survival)

2) how can we target metastasis and particularly recurrence.

We’ll do this with collaboratively, focusing on the use of the most relevant in vivo models with the aim of looking at many of these processes very closely in human disease

Which aspects of the role are you most excited about?

I believe we really are reaching a transformation in cancer research at the moment. So many of the most exciting cancer biological questions need to be applied to human disease, and we are seeing many discoveries from very fundamental research entering into the clinic. I therefore think we have a unique opportunity to be really ambitious in our translational research.

What do you foresee as the biggest challenges in cancer research over the next 5—10 years and how can the Beatson play a role?

Everyone talks about a need for team science but this I feel is still not appreciated. As we try to integrate data and expertise from all different areas and try to apply this to the clinic (with an over-stretched NHS), if we don’t support team science and clinical academics this would be a real missed opportunity.  I think this where the institutes can really help out and support the next generation, and take a lead in supporting collaborative science. We can take a long view and reward this.

What work is currently happening at the Beatson that really excites you? What do you see delivering a real impact in the future?

There a lot! I’m really excited about our work on the metastatic niche and I feel, with really innovative thinking, we can lead on strategies to prevent recurrence –  also our metabolism/protein synthesis work is really exciting and recently led to an involvement in the Grand Challenge to look at metabolism in vivo. These large initiatives, I believe, will deliver real impact in the future. I’ve not even mentioned Precision Panc — our UK network to stratify pancreatic cancer for therapy — which I really hope could lead to better treatment for pancreatic cancer patients. So there’s lots to do!

If you could be present at one scientific discovery, which one would it be?

Ok this is going to be a little bit niche: organoids. For many years, all colorectal cancer researchers have had one poor person in the lab trying to do intestinal culture and failing. Then, out of the blue and in a very hypothesis driven manner, Toshi Sato in Hans Clevers’s lab grew organoids. These form lovely epithelial structures in matrigel and it would have been great to be there when the first one grew. It’s very visual too. Importantly, this has allowed us to perform really excellent mechanistic studies that we were not able to do on tissue samples. Moreover, you can culture tumour organoids from people, they are remarkably stable. Some of the work by the Clevers and Tuveson labs are looking very promising in terms of stratified medicine both in terms of the ability to get tumour material from small biopsies e.g. pancreatic cancer and the fact they may predict response



Profile: Owen Sansom

Owen has been Deputy Director of the CRUK Beatson Institute since 2011. He also leads the CRUK Glasgow Centre, which aims to translate findings from the laboratory into the clinic for the benefit of cancer patients.

Owen’s research has been instrumental in determining the molecular hallmarks of colorectal cancer. His group has helped to define the roles of the tumour suppressor APC and the WNT signalling pathway, as well as the involvement of intestinal stem cells in tumourigenesis. His laboratory uses in vivo and 3D in vitro models to recapitulate colorectal and pancreatic cancers to investigate the molecular mechanisms underpinning tumourigenesis, to identify novel drug targets and combinatorial strategies, and to stratify patient therapy.

2001 – PhD from the University of Edinburgh

2005 – Junior Group Leader at the CRUK Beatson Institute

2007 – BACR/AstraZeneca Young Scientist Frank Rose Award

2011 – Deputy Director of the CRUK Beatson Institute

2012 – CRUK Future Leaders in Cancer Research Prize

2012 – Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

2017 – Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences