PUBLISHED ON: 9 February 2015

Dr Rob Clarke leads a team of scientists at the Breakthrough Research Unit in Manchester. His team is interested in a type of breast cancer cell called a “breast cancer stem cell”, and the role they play in the growth and spread of the disease. We caught up with Rob to chat about his work and how it could benefit breast cancer patients.

What is the focus of your research?

My lab is investigating the control of stem cell activity in breast cancer. We have good evidence that cancer cells with stem cell behaviour are responsible for resistance to current standard treatments such as radio-, chemo- and endocrine therapies.  If cancer stem cells are resistant and survive the standard treatments, they can cause a cancer to recur in the bone or other tissues several years after surgery. Obviously, we want to avoid this and by targeting cancer stem cells with new therapies, we hope we can start to prevent this cancer recurrence.  We are trying to understand the basic biology controlling these cancer stem cells.

What is your team currently working on?

We are currently studying several molecular communication networks which help regulate breast cancer stem cells. We want to find out which is the critical network that can be taken down with a targeted therapy to control cancer stem cells without causing untoward toxicity to the patients.

How close are we to targeting cancer stem cells as a treatment?

I think there are already treatments available which may indirectly target cancer stem cells.  Herceptin, for example, targets the HER2 gene that is also present in the stem cells.

However, novel treatments which are directly targeted at the cancer stem cells are being tested and are on their way to clinical development.  Therapies that target cellular communication networks called “Notch” and “Wnt” are promising candidates.

What do you think is the most important discovery in the field so far?

In the field of cancer stem cells, the evidence has accumulated over 12 years and spans several cancer types, so it is hard to pick out one single discovery.  As often happens in science, discovery is a communal effort in many labs across the world, each making breakthroughs and confirming the validity and importance of previous research in this area.

The research paper that first described breast cancer stem cells was published in 2003 by my namesake, Michael Clarke, working then at the University of Michigan in the US.  I had already heard about the story at a conference in 2002 and as I was already working on stem cells I saw a great opportunity to study their role in breast cancer.

You have received funding from both Breakthrough and Breast Cancer Campaign.  What are your thoughts on the upcoming merger?

I believe that the merger of these two highly successful charities funding research will be synergistic, by which I mean greater than the sum of their parts.  I expect it will be beneficial for researchers as there will be more funding available, which in turn means better research and a faster approach to finding ways to stop people dying from breast cancer.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I am a life-long fan of Dartford FC. Come on you Darts! Unfortunately, we’re probably going to be relegated from the Football Conference this season.

Give us your best science fact.

The breast cancer wonder drug tamoxifen was originally developed as a contraceptive by a company called ICI (now AstraZeneca). It was only when it failed as a contraceptive that it was tested in breast cancer. The first clinical trial was done here, at The Christie in Manchester, where this interview is taking place.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The dog - barking at the milkman and wanting a walk…