Finding some way to cure

Hope for the future rests with a corps of skilled researchers. Sharon Kingman visits them at the labs

CANCER CELLS are special. Cancer develops when ordinary cells begin to divide and grow inappropriately, having lost the normal controls that tell them when to stop dividing. At the Marie Curie Research Institute in Oxted, Surrey, scientists are trying to work out exactly how the normal process of cell division goes wrong - with the hope of one day being able to design drugs that will eliminate the rogue cells.

Dr Graham Currie, director of research at the institute, says: "Our work is part of an international collaborative effort. The sorts of discoveries that our scientists are making will have a major impact on the detection and diagnosis of cancer. This will aid us in identifying new targets for drug development - which we hope to develop with the help of the pharmaceuticals industry."

Scientists already know a great deal about what goes wrong when cancer develops. Normal growth of cells is controlled by two sets of genes. One set - the "on switch" - produces proteins that tell a cell to grow and divide. The second - the "off switch" set - makes proteins that tell the cell to stop dividing.

In many malignant tumours there are faults or mutations in one or both of these sets. Some of these faults result in the switch that controls cell division becoming stuck in the "on" position. Genes with this type of fault are called oncogenes.

In most cancers, cells in the tumour have also lost their copy of the gene that tells the cell to stop dividing - the switch that turns off cell growth no longer works. These genes, whose absence results in cancer, are called tumour suppressor genes.

In cells that have lost a tumour suppressor gene, or which have gained an oncogene, cell division can run riot. But in most cancers, a whole series of changes and mutations are needed before a cell takes on the characteristics of a cancer cell.

As people age, the genetic material of their cells accumulates random mutations, perhaps in response to environmental factors such as smoking, diet or radiation. This is why cancer tends to affect mainly older people - because it takes time to accumulate enough errors, and in a certain order, for cancer to develop.

At the Marie Curie Research Institute, seven teams of scientists are adding to this bank of knowledge. One is studying the ways in which viruses infect cells - a process that involves hijacking the cell's normal pattern of growth. Another team has been examining the mechanism by which normal cells divide. And a third group has been combing through samples of tumour cells to try to identify hitherto unknown oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes.

For example, Dr Peter O'Hare and his colleagues have been studying how the herpes virus switches genes on and off in the cells that it infects. His team has found that, after the virus has invaded the cell, a protein from the virus binds to one of the cell's proteins - one which is normally involved in controlling the genes that must be activated for cell division to take place.

The researchers have discovered that this binding is only possible because the cellular protein assumes a different shape in cells that are infected by the virus. This discovery means that it may one day be possible to design drugs that would selectively attack cells that are dividing in an abnormal way.

Dr O'Hare says: "By exploring how this viral protein interacts with the cell's proteins, we are uncovering the basic mechanisms about how proteins control genes.

"This is helpful to our knowledge about cancer, since many proteins involved in triggering cancer exert their effect by controlling genes. The more we find out about these aspects, the closer we are to finding out what goes wrong in cancer."

A second team, led by Dr Rob Cross, is scrutinising the process of normal cell division. When a cell divides, it duplicates its chromosomes, which contain the genetic material. Half of the chromosomes then travel to one end of the cell and half to the other. But how do the chromosomes move across the cell? That is one of the questions that Dr Cross and his team are trying to answer.

During cell division, the cell builds a specialised network or "scaffolding" made up of tiny tubes called microtubules. This surrounds the nucleus. It is now known that individual molecules, powered by the cell's chemical energy, pick up and transport the chromosomes along this network of microtubules. Many different versions of these "molecular motors", as they have been called, have been discovered, which move at different rates and in both directions along the microtubules.

Dr Cross and his colleagues have shown that some molecular motors have two sites which can bind to the microtubules - but that each molecule can only use one of its two binding sites at any one time. It is, he explains, rather as though the molecules have two feet that allow them to "walk" along the microtubules, but can only put one of the feet down at any given moment.

Dr Cross says: "If we are to tackle cancer, we first need to understand normal processes of cell division at the molecular level." One day, he adds, it may be possible to design new drugs that will interfere specifically with these stages of cell division in the cancer cell.

A third team at the institute is searching for new examples of genetic mutations that cause bladder cancers. Dr Maggie Knowles, who is leading this work, explains that all tumours arise because normal cells have accumulated several mutations; in the case of bladder cancer, six to eight mutations are thought to be needed.

"Some of the mutations present in bladder cancer are known - our objective is to track down the ones that are not yet known," she says.

To do so, she and her team have been examining the genetic material present in hundreds of samples of bladder tumours that have been removed from patients. They are also about to embark on a study to find out whether particular mutations are associated with tumours that resist treatment and spread rapidly.

About 20 per cent of people diagnosed as having bladder cancer have tumours which have already grown into the muscle of the bladder. Many of them respond poorly to treatment. The remaining 80 per cent have superficial tumours which have not spread to the muscle of the bladder and can be completely removed. They are likely to respond well to treatment and live for many more years. But, in about one in five of them, the tumour will recur and penetrate the bladder wall. These patients are also difficult to treat.

Dr Knowles and her colleagues are hoping to be able to find out whether tumours that respond poorly to treatment, tumours that spread, and tumours that recur, are associated with particular rogue genes. If they are, knowing which type of tumour patients have when they are first diagnosed could be helpful: doctors might be able to treat certain patients with more powerful drugs, or follow them up more often.

Dr Currie adds: "With modern gene technology, it should be possible to identify these tumours at an early stage by screening the urine for cancer cells."

News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
people

Tennis star is set to marry his long-term girlfriend, Kim Sears

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Langley James : IT Support; Helpdesk, VMware; Manchester, £18k

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Langley James : IT Support; Helpdesk, VMware; Manch...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HRO - £70k+ ote

£35000 - £450000 per annum + £3k car, £70k ote: h2 Recruit Ltd: Do you want to...

Citifocus Ltd: Newly Qualified Accountants - Risk Mgmt

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious financial institution seeks to...

Citifocus Ltd: Operational Risk Analyst

£Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: Experienced operational risk professional with ban...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?