Watch a short video about Dr Jason Bruce’s research into Pancreatic Cancer.
“We can send a man to the moon, so why can’t we beat cancer?”
Just a few years ago, we at last reached the point where half of all people diagnosed with cancer could expect to survive it. Within 20 years, scientists hope that figure will rise even further to 3 in 4 people.
Reaching these milestones does not happen easily. It is the culmination of years of research by thousands of scientists around the world, working in fields as diverse as genetics, pharmacology and biochemistry – as well as medicine.
Much of this research takes place here in Manchester. In fact, cancer is one of The University of Manchester’s five main ‘research beacons’ – priority research areas in which we are world leaders – the others being industrial biotechnology, advanced materials, energy and addressing global inequalities.
Beyond the main university campus, we also have the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, situated over the road from the Christie Hospital in Withington, south Manchester. Their brand new £28.5 million building opened its doors last year, and is jointly funded by The University of Manchester, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and Cancer Research UK.
Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity, and funds and conducts research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Its work is almost entirely funded by donations from the public.
The Christie Hospital is one of Europe’s leading centres for cancer treatment and research, treating over 40,000 patients a year, and around 400 early phase clinical trials are taking place here at any one time. This makes The Christie an ideal next-door-neighbour for the new Cancer Research UK Institute.
Research in places like Manchester has vastly improved our knowledge of cancer and how we can treat it over the past decades. The discovery of epigenetics has shone a new light on the different ways this disease can arise, while genome sequencing has given us new and highly effective methods of diagnosis, allowing us to accurately tailor treatments to each individual’s needs.
There’s still such a long way to go however.
Cancer is not one disease nor one hundred diseases but many thousands, each unique and requiring a different response. Such a diverse assortment of diseases is only possible because the body itself is so diverse.
37 trillion cells, and 10,000,000 components per cell make the body 125 billion times more complicated than the Saturn Rockets that allowed humans to go to the Moon. It is only when we consider this staggering complexity that we can begin to appreciate the immense challenge we face in trying to treat the numerous different types of cancer.
Faculty scientists have made an important discovery in skin cancer treatments. They found that the HIV drug Nelfinavir can help treatments of melanoma to become more potent.
Skin cancer is a major problem in the UK, with more than 13,000 people being diagnosed with melanomas every year and over 2,000 people dying from it. There are drugs that are available to help treat melanoma skin cancer, but these can be ineffective because melanoma cells become resistant to them over time. After the resistance, the cells go on to make genetic changes which make it extremely hard to attack them.
Professor Claudia Wellbrock and her team found that Nelfinavir can help prevent cancer cells from becoming resistant to the treatment, making the cancer fighting agents more effective for a longer time.
The team discovered that cancer cells were able to rewire themselves by using a molecular change. This change that typically takes place in the first two weeks of cancer treatments, helps the cancer cells to develop resistance.
It was this molecular change that Wellbrock targeted by the use of Nelfinavir. It was found that Nelfinavir actually blocks the cells from rewiring and they were therefore less likely to develop resistance to the cancer treatment.
It is now thought that Nelfinavir could be administrated alongside existing cancer drugs in order to improve their effectiveness and boost the patient’s chances of survival.
Professor Wellbrock says:
“In the first few weeks of standard treatment for skin cancer, the cancer cells become stronger and more robust against treatment. But if we can target skin cancer cells before they become fully resistant, we would have a much better chance of blocking their escape. We think this research has brought us one step closer to making this a reality.”
The paper can be found at Cancer Cell http://www.cell.com/cancer-cell/fulltext/S1535-6108(16)30037-X
Please explain your research for the general public.
I do a whole bunch of different kinds of research, with most of it focused around issues of women’s health and relationships between patients and doctors. One of the projects that I’ve been working on for a while is a history of breast cancer treatment and experience in 20th century Britain. What I want to know is how has treatment changed in Britain over the course of the last century, but also how has the experience of being treated for breast cancer changed.
In relation to my research, I am working on a newer project on women’s cancer screening and prevention. Basically the project is about how interventions like cervical smears and the mammograms became expected parts of women’s healthcare. I am looking at how interventions become a way for women to think about the status of their health in their everyday lives; part of this looks at how these types of treatments were built into the National Health Service.
How does this research benefit the general public?
Breast cancer services in the UK are often used as a proxy for the state of Britain’s commitment to women’s healthcare and I want to know how this came to be. The project will also explain why certain practices are organised the way that they are, for example, you get cervical cancer screenings from your GP whereas you get breast cancer screenings through specialised centres and so my research hopes to answer how this happened. I think we all need to know why our healthcare system is set up this way.
The project also allows me to understand how everyday people receive health care; it gives me the ability to understand what it is like for patients who have to go through the current health care system in comparison to patients from earlier in the 20thcentury and how these changes in practices affect the patient.
How did you first get interested in the history of science and medicine?
Well it’s sort of a long path. I started out, like many people in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, really interested in science as a kid. I used to like to read old medical books and old science books. I actually went to University in the US and I wanted to become a research biologist. I loved working in the lab but I was not so good at other elements of research and at the same time I found that what I really cared about was the history of science and medicine. Doing History is great for the curious, because it’s basically reading other people’s mail!
I worked for a while as a technical writer and then I went onto graduate school in history and sociology of science. At that point I decided I actually wanted to look at how it is that everyday people learn about science and medicine.
Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?
I was a big reader as a kid and I loved reading biographies of scientists and I especially loved reading biographies of women scientists; Marie Curie of course, but lots of others too. Like a lot of people of my age group and that are American, the thing that really did it for me was Carl Sagan and Cosmos. I realised later that this was partly because he didn’t really just tell you the scientific information, but he gave you a really good picture of how that information came to be. He made it clear that you have to understand the history to really understand the present and the future and I think he was terrific at that!
How has working here in Manchester helped you?
It’s helped me a lot to work here in Manchester, especially at the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, because CHSTM is internationally known with a really strong sense of cross-discipline collaborations. I have great colleagues and there are a lot of elective and joint projects that we have going on and it’s really good in that sense because as a historian a lot of the work that you do is individual. When you sit in the archives you’re looking at papers on your own but being able to do historical projects whilst working with other people is really special. Manchester has been great!
Manchester has also been really great because there’s a lot of interest all over the University in the human elements of medicine. I have colleagues in Humanities, in Medicine and Human Sciences, and here in Life Sciences, that are not historians, who all want to think about the more human experience side of biomedicine. In fact, we’ve started a new group that’s called the Medical Humanities laboratory and that is bringing together those people from all over the University to look at the relationships between art, history and science.
What do you do outside of work?
Anyone who follows my Twitter Feed will know that I am a very avid knitter and crafter. I probably tweet as much about knitting as I do about history!
Anyone who has come to a CHSTM seminar will have probably seen me knitting during the seminar itself because it really does help me concentrate better. It allows me to get my nervous energy out by knitting a sock whilst I try to think of a question to ask. I also read a lot of mystery novels and, of course, I do a lot of things like travelling and visiting museums.
Benjamin Stutchbury is a PhD student in the Faculty. As you’ll see below, it took him a while to find the topic he wanted to study, but now that he has he seems to excelling.
With ambitions of being involved in science communication, Ben has already been involved in some exciting events. In fact, the day after this article goes live he will be performing in the national final of the FameLab competition. You can see his North West Final performance in one of the videos below.
We’re confident that you’ll be hearing Ben’s name in the future, so we thought we’d get in on the ground floor and interview him for this week’s Tuesday Feature.
Could you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
I research how a cell in your body is able to understand the environment that it’s in.
Particularly how it’s able to understand the mechanical properties of the environment; so how soft it is, or how rigid it is. For example, brain is very soft and bone is very rigid. Cells in these areas of your body need to respond to, and change how they react to, changes in these different environments.
It’s difficult to say, really. It’s a very, very young area of research. It was only in the last ten years that this idea of cells responding to forces rather than chemicals has really emerged as a field. So at the moment it’s more that we’re trying to understand how they’re actually doing it and what’s actually going on.
Eventually, where it will benefit people is cancer. Which is kind of what every researcher says.
It’s about how cells sense and respond to changes in the mechanical properties of their environment and cancer is a stiffer environment than normal tissue. That’s why you can feel a cancer lump underneath your skin.
Cancer cells are stiffer than normal tissue. They respond differently to this stiffer environment, and that’s one of the reasons they divide faster and move faster. Which is why cancer is so good at killing.
Can we ask you how you first got interested in your research area?
Yeah, it kind of happened by accident to be honest.
I always thought I was interested in immunology, the study of the immune system. Then I went and did an immunology placement in a lab for three months and absolutely hated it.
I went into my final year of undergrad knowing that I wanted to carry on doing science, but with no idea of what I wanted to do. And then I kind of stumbled upon this area of, I guess they call it, mechanobiology; the cells and mechanical forces.
It was quite interesting and different to anything I’d seen before because it’s such a young area. I did a placement in a lab as a kind of try out before doing a PhD and really enjoyed it so decided to stick with it as a PhD topic.
Not really, to be honest.
This might be a new one, but I was actually more inspired by a disease than anything else. I have type 1 diabetes and I was diagnosed when I was eleven. When I was twelve I decided that my life dream was going to be to cure diabetes.
I kind of went down the path of doing science, and was interested in it enough to want to carry on looking into curing diabetes. Then I did a module in second year about metabolism and metabolic diseases and found them really dull. So then I decided that diabetes was really boring.
But actually, my desire to sort of carry on researching other things kind of stuck.
And then I chose immunology, and hated immunology. Everyone was getting a bit worried that I hated all biology but still wanted to do it. And then I found my area to focus on.
But I don’t think I have an individual who kind of fuelled my desire to do science, it was more my own personal circumstances.
Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?
I do a lot of sport. If I hadn’t done science, if I hadn’t got a PhD offer, my fall back was to train as an outdoor instructor. Mountaineering, mountain biking, kayaking, and that kind of thing. I do a lot of rock climbing and mountaineering.
Oh, and squash. I play a lot of squash, kind of three or four times a week. If it involves an activity, I’ll generally be happy to do it.
How has working at the Faculty benefited your research?
Massively, I think.
The main reason for that is the size of the Faculty and the huge variety of different areas of science that are being carried out within this one Faculty.
As I said I kind of came into this not knowing what area I wanted to go into. The PhD I’m doing allowed the opportunity to go into and try out a couple of different labs before choosing one to settle in.
There aren’t many universities in the UK that offer that kind of PhD. It’s becoming more popular now, but it’s still not that common. So the fact that Manchester allowed you to do a PhD where you could sample labs before choosing one means you can find out if you enjoy the topic, if you like doing the techniques that you have to do, if you like the people you’re working with, and if you get on with the supervisor.
That’s quite a unique thing for Manchester, I think. It was a big influence on me choosing here for my PhD placement.
And so we come to the end of another Tuesday Feature. Our thank yous go to Ben and we wish him a great deal of luck in the FameLab final.
Ben’s is a great story, and it’s fascinating to see how a love for science drove him on even when he struggled to find the exact topic that suited him. That’s pretty inspirational! If you want to hear more from him, please head over to his blog.
Anyway, enough mushiness for now. Thank you, Ben – and thank you all for reading. Please come back next week!
Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe and Ben Stutchbury, Images courtesy of Nick Ogden and Ben Stutchbury
Professor Dan Davis has had a startling career so far. In the last year or so his first book, The Compatibility Gene, has received rave reviews and was even chosen as one of the Guardian’s books of the year by legendary author Bill Bryson. We’re reading it at the minute, and we urge you to pick up a copy.
Naturally, we’re honoured to be interviewing Dan for this week’s Tuesday Feature. Always the interesting speaker, we hope you enjoy finding out a little bit more about his work, his inspirations, and his life. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Could you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
My research is about imaging what happens when immune cells bump into other cells and they try to decide whether these other cells are diseased or healthy.
We use very high-powered microscopes to watch that process in great detail. In fact, we use super resolution microscopes, a kind of microscope that won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year. They look, in unprecedented detail, at precisely what happens when the immune cell is deciding whether another cell is healthy or diseased.
By watching that process, there are two things that we can learn. We can watch which molecules are really important in that recognition process and we can understand how that recognition works. As well as that, as well as watching in great detail how the process works, we can also use these microscopes in a very explorative way, as they are inherently an explorative tool.
Just by looking at what happens, we actually discover some quite unexpected phenomena about how immune cells behave.
I guess there are many ways in which this research could help the general public.
Let me give you a very specific example. One of the things that we’ve discovered is that when an immune cell is going to kill a cancer cell it secretes these packets of molecules up from inside of the immune cell and then they come out of the immune cell and those molecules enter into the cancer cell and kill it. One of the long-standing problems in understanding that process in detail is how those molecules get through what is called a meshwork of actins.
Underneath the surface of the immune cell there’s a meshwork of proteins that you can think of as a bit like the inside of a tennis racquet. That sort of scaffolding is important to give the cell its shape and allow it to move. But then, if it’s like the inside of a tennis racquet, how are those big packets of molecules able to squeeze through the squares of the racquet.
We showed that, in effect, the squares get a bit bigger to allow that killing process to happen.
Now we’ve also discovered that drugs can manipulate that process to allow it to happen more efficiently. This might be important because seeing how those drugs work, in allowing cancer cells to be dealt with more efficiently, could give new ideas for how to make new kinds of drugs in the future.
Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?
You know, I’ve always been interested in science. Since the age of four I’ve been told I always wanted to be a scientist.
Initially, I wanted to study physics because it’s about laws that govern how the whole universe works, and what could be more fundamental than that. And then later in my career, after my PhD in physics, I thought that the contributions I could make to the area of physics I was in would probably be a bit esoteric. I thought I could probably make a bigger contribution if I went to study how life works instead.
So I went to the US to Harvard University and did a post-doc in Immunology, to apply what I did know to thinking about how the immune system works.
‘Science heroes’ is a difficult concept.
I wrote this book called The Compatibility Gene and part of that was about me looking at the sixty-year long journey we’ve had to understand how the immune system works.
One of the things I got from that was that when you look at people who have discovered truly amazing, wonderful things in science, when you look into their lives in great detail – they have made huge sacrifices. They didn’t necessarily have the life that I would want for myself.
So there are role models, people have done wonderful amazing things. But I’m proud of what I’m doing and where I’m going and I think heroes in science are quite a difficult concept.
Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?
I have two kids aged 10 and 12 so a lot of my time is filled with playing football in the garden and stuff.
Also, I like to draw.
And I think my main passion at the moment is in writing, the way I can contribute to society and culture in general through writing. My first book is out with Penguin, and I’m working on writing more.
How has working here benefited your research?
I used to be the head of Immunology at Imperial College, London, South Kensington and I moved to Manchester about two years ago now. It has been great for me to see the difference between the two institutes and actually, I love them both. They both have pros and cons and there are some differences.
Crucially, one of the things that I’m doing now in Manchester is acting as Director of Research for a centre that’s in collaboration with the pharmaceutical companies GSK and AstraZeneca. That is very interesting to me, as effectively that interaction just nudges some parts of my research programme to be in areas that are more directly applicable to things that are of interest to that industry.
We might be looking at fundamental processes in immune cells, looking in great detail at how the surface of an immune cell looks, and they just slightly nudge our lab to then apply those ideas and technologies to look at things that might be of more direct importance to medicine.
Thanks, Dan. That’s another fascinating insight into a Faculty member, and it’s great to hear how the work our staff carries out could have impacts across society.
Thanks again for reading – and please let us know if you’re enjoying the series. There’s a bit of a different angle to next week’s Tuesday Feature as we chat with Research Technician Roberta Oliveira. Hope to see you then!
Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe, Images by Nick Ogden
The Faculty’s Leadership Team (FLT) are putting forward a team for this year’s Swimathon. They will be raising money for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
Swimathon is the UK’s biggest fundraising swim and there were many people in FLT keen to take part. The rules state that no more than five people can be in one team, though, and after much discussion it was decided that Professor Martin Humphries, Dr Caroline Bowsher, Professor Liz Sheffield, Nicola Smith, and Professor David Thornton would make up the team.
Dr Catherine Porter will cover for injuries or cold feet and Professor Amanda Bamford will be on the sidelines, waving the flag and cheering them on.
The team will be attempting the maximum distance of 5k. Their swim will take place on Saturday April 18 at 2pm in the Aquatics Centre, and you can sponsor them on their Just Giving page. They hope to raise £500. Professor Bamford says:
This is really good cause which is close to my heart and I am so proud that they have stepped up and put their swimsuits on to fund raise for Marie Curie. I will be there on the day cheering them all on, ready with the energy drinks. 5K is not a trivial distance but as Michael Phelps said “You can’t put a limit on anything. The more you dream, the farther you get”!
The University has secured funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC) for a new Manchester Single Cell Research Centre (SCRC). The £5 million award application was led by Faculty scientist Professor Cay Kielty in collaboration with colleagues from FLS and the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences.
Researchers in the SCRC will focus on characterising a group of rare cells called circulating tumour cells (CTCs), which give rise to drug-resistant cancers. They will also be working on specific stem cells that can enable the regeneration of damaged tissues such as muscle, joints, skin, and blood vessels. Professor Kielty says:
“This new technology will enable us to define cell heterogeneity and the biology of rare cells in health and disease.”