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British Science Week 2020: how different approaches are helping us beat cancer

Lilly Matson
by Lilly Matson | Analysis

13 March 2020

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British Science Week 2020

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “knowledge about the structure and behaviour of the natural and physical world, based on facts that you can prove, for example by experiments”.

But what does ‘science’ really mean?  

From the diameter of the sun to the smallest quark, whether you’re talking light years or milliseconds, analysing the oxygen rich amazon or the arid surface of Venus, science really is diverse, and can be difficult to define.  

This year, British Science Week celebrates our wonderful, unique and diverse planet.  

To some, the idea of researching cancer may conjure up images of scientists studying cells in the lab or testing drugs. But in reality, cancer research comes in all shapes and sizes. 

To celebrate this phenomenal diversity in scientific backgrounds and approaches, we’ve spoken to 3 researchers bringing vastly different experiences to tackling cancer. 

It’s written in the stars  

Molecular cartography of breast cancer – imaging mass cytometry reveals breast tumour and stromal areas. Outlines represent the ‘continents’ and ‘islands’ of cancer cells. H R Ali, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, University of Cambridge

Carlos Caldas is a clinician scientist at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.  

Caldas’ team focuses on breast cancer and runs the landmark METABRIC study, which has re-defined breast cancer into 11 different subtypes. And they’re also part of our £20 million funded Grand Challenge project, IMAXT.  

This global collaboration aims to generate incredibly detailed and precise pictures of cancers by creating 3D images of tumours, which can then be studied using virtual reality

“The thing to say is that science is becoming more and more about team science and that requires people of different backgrounds and different expertise,” says Caldas. “Often, these people are international, and teams might be even across countries and continents.”  

But it’s not just about geography. The team come from a vast range of academic backgrounds. “It’s a very multidisciplinary team,” explains Caldas. Their lab includes people who have backgrounds in medicine, biology, computing, mathematics, physics, chemistry and pathology, to name just a few.  

Caldas believes this diversity is key to tackling cancer. “Cancer is such a complex problem, cancers are so diverse, and that complexity requires a comprehensive team who can battle it from all of these aspects and analyse very different datasets.” 

For IMAXT, that includes working alongside the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, which Caldas pioneered, for the last 10 years 

The link between cancer and stars may seem obscure at first, but Caldas explains how the expertise of physicists who’ve analysed pictures of stars, planets and supernovas taken by the Hubble telescope has helped them decode images of human cancers.  

“One of the first people to recruit into my lab 15 years ago was a physicist who had no background in biology whatsoever,” says Caldas. And I recruited him because of his expertise in algorithms and mathematics and analysing big data. And I got him to learn the language of biology. And my group has been a pioneer in great parts because it is so multidisciplinary” 

From stars to sport 

Beat the bus animation
Not all cancer research involves a white coat. Professor Louise Mansfield’s studies are focused outside of the lab, on a very human element of health. Based at Brunel University in London, Mansfield’s research includes raising awareness of the health benefits of physical activity, and the potential link to preventing cancer.  

Mansfield says that while we know that physical activity is good for your health and wellbeing, it’s tremendously difficult to promote to diverse groups. “It’s not anything to do with being lazy or unmotivated, there are real reasons why people find it terribly difficult to take part in physical activity.  

“So I think that that complexity needs multidisciplinary teams that solve these kinds of real world problems,” adds Mansfield. Her team focused their efforts on public spaces where people wait around. And an ideal candidate was the humble bus stop.  

To come up with ways for people to be physically active at a bus stop, Mansfield and her colleagues took to the streets. “We engaged a range of people who we knew would wait at bus stops. And that included young people, young families with children and with old people,” explains Mansfield.   

Together they developed a ‘beat the bus’ concept, where an interface at the bus stop would encourage those waiting to walk a route to the next stop, which would be faster than catching the bus. Those that took part would receive tokens or rewards that included educational messages about cancer and physical activity.   

Mansfield says that tackling complex research questions like ones about cancer requires working with people outside of research. “If you’re not working with people who are living with and beyond cancer, or those who support them, your project is more likely to fail. It’s about multidisciplinary teams and cross sector involvement 

Watching tumours eat and breathe  


Scan of breast tumour

Anatomic image of a breast tumour (left), MRI scan showing 2 different metabolites: the pyruvate signal (centre) and lactate signal (right).

Like healthy cells, cancer cells need oxygen and nutrients to live, and now, a group of researchers have been able to capture this process.

Kevin Brindle specialises in molecular imaging and, like Caldas, works at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. 

Brindle began his career with a degree in biochemistry in Oxford in the 1970s. “I actually wanted to be a structural biologist, I had no intention of going into this area,” he explains. But his interest in imaging was sparked by his PhD supervisor introduced him to a particular imaging technique – nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and he started working in this area of research “almost by accident.” 

Brindle and his team have spent the last 15 years finding a way to increase the sensitivity of MRI. And that meant ripping up the rulebook.  

Traditional MRI images water in the body. And because different parts of the body will have different amounts of water, MRI can be used to build up pictures of different tissues 

But water isn’t the only thing that MRI can pick up. Scientists have known since the 1970s that MRI can also detect small molecules involved in metabolism. But as these small molecules are present at very low concentrations, detecting them is tricky. It’s something Brindle and his team have been working to overcome.  

This kind of work bridges different sciences. “It’s high level MR physics on the one hand, and then biology on the other,” explains Brindle. 

And it’s paid off. Publishing their latest work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They’ve not only managed to image metabolites in tumours, but also to analyse the rate at which they’re turning over.  

Which means they can see the tumour ‘eating and breathing’ in real time. 

Whilst physical changes to a tumour can take weeks, or even months to appear, these metabolic changes can be visualised very quickly after treatment, meaning doctors can get an indication of whether a treatment is working. 

Brindle says a project like this – which begins in the lab and ends in the clinic – wouldn’t happen half as fast without having medical doctors in the team.  

That way you get a reality check, will this actually work in clinic or not?” he adds.  

A common problem  

This year’s British Science Week is a timely reminder of the value of collaboration.  

Whether it’s astronomers, the wider public, or clinicians – we need to continue working with people from a range of diverse disciplines to answer the most pressing questions in cancer.  

Caldas concludes that it’s these unique partnerships that makes their work possible, “to have these teams of people, with very diverse backgrounds, working on a common problem. Because after all, we are all funded by Cancer Research UK, and our focus is cancer.”