Who, why, where?
My name is Laura Bella, and I am now a final year PhD student in Imperial College London working with Professor Eric Lam. In the past few years, Professor Lam has become quite established for his research on different aspects of breast cancer. I was very grateful when Breast Cancer Now gave me the opportunity to work with him. Two and a half years later, here I am.
So what is your research?
For the past few years my group has been looking at this misbehaving gene called FOXM1, which seems to be behind the start of breast cancers, as well as their lack of response to chemotherapy. Recently, there has been speculation that FOXM1 may also cause cancers to spread around the body. That’s where my project comes in: I look at how FOXM1 works and how it can lead cancers to decide to (and succeed in) scattering around the body.
That sounds complicated. How?
I will not bore you with the details of the many techniques that are available in the lab to solve all of our puzzles. I will, however, bore you with the details of this new technique we have developed to study how tumours behave in vivo. When we say in vivo, we mean the study of how a tumour behaves when it is inside a living organism (so we can see how it behaves when it is inside the human body), rather than just looking at how it acts when in culture in a laboratory. It makes us assess better if our findings are true or just due to the fact that the cells are not in their natural environment.
In my project we have started using zebrafish (a type of fish, not of zebras) to look at how breast cancers behave when within a ‘body’. Although fairly new in the field of ‘in vivo’ studies of cancers, zebrafish are proving to be quite useful; money saving and speed aside, they can be made to have transparent skin throughout their lives, allowing us to easily monitor what the tumours are doing inside the fish’s bodies without needing to harm them.
Ok, but have we concluded anything?
I am very happy to report back that yes, we have concluded quite a few things! First of all, our use of zebrafish will provide a new platform from which future scientists can work on studying how tumours behave in vivo, in an easy, cost-effective, fast and reliable way. A few days with the zebrafish can give you results that you would only obtain from months of work with other in vivo models.
With the help of these little fish (and other techniques) we have established that FOXM1 does command breast cancer cells to spread around the body. FOXM1 appears to be important for every step in this cancer cell rebellion. We have also identified new ways of stopping FOXM1’s activity: this way, it is our turn to decide when the tumour cells get to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’, rather than go for a walk around the organs.
Finally, we noticed how breast cancer cells which are immune to standard chemotherapies also have a tendency to be more prone to spread around the body. We found that FOXM1 is key to this behaviour, and that our new-found ways to combat FOXM1 can effectively prevent even these disobedient tumours from becoming mobile. When we say ‘stay’, we mean it.
Great! So how does this all fit in with the whole ‘cure for cancer’ plan?
A mischievous FOXM1, although infuriating, is not an attractive candidate for anti-cancer therapeutics. You see, despite being the cause for many cancers, it is also responsible for tissue regeneration when we get injured. Our new ways to constrain FOXM1 could, however, be one day used as drug targets to stop breast cancers from spreading around the body.
Also, thanks to our research, we have established one of the ways through which breast cancers resistant to standard chemotherapies become more aggressive. Those tumours may not be responsive to standard drugs, but our new targets could one day be used to keep these tumours at bay until new ways to demolish them become available.
Now let me say thank you
I’d like to take this opportunity to give a few thanks. First of all, thank you to Professor Eric Lam and his team of avid researchers. He is the brains behind our every step, and without him we wouldn’t know our left from our right.
Thank you to Breast Cancer Now, without which our research would not have been possible. You will not find a charity that is this devoted to its cause, and still able to retain this family feeling. You feel like home.
And last but not least, thank you to all you Breast Cancer Now supporters. You are our inspiration and the reason we continue with our research, even in the most frustrating days when nothing seems to go right.
So sit tight. Although mostly invisible, we are here working for a cure at all hours of the day and night. And we will get there.
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Laura Bella is the author of a blog, Diary of a cancer cell