Dr Joaquin de Navascues

Dr Joaquin de Navascues

"I think the important thing about cancer stem cells is the realisation that there is a hierarchal lineage in tumour cells; the aim is to design more specific therapies at each stage of the tumour, according to this hierarchy"

Who are you?

I did my undergrad in Spain in developmental biology where I became interested in the question of how cells decide their fate. By the end of my PhD, several groups of physicists had started publishing very quantitative developmental biology papers. My father is a physicist so I've always been interested in that approach but these papers made me realise its importance in my own studies. So I moved to Cambridge and switched to studying adult stem cells so I could have the opportunity to work with physicists. And since October I've been carrying on that work here at the Institute.

What does working at a cancer stem cell research institute mean to your work?

I think the important thing about cancer stem cells, more than any definition, is the realisation that there is a hierarchal lineage in tumour cells; that not all of them have the same potential for initiating or maintaining tumours. At the Institute the aim is to design more specific therapies which target stem cells at each stage of the tumour, according to this hierarchy, reducing the chance of relapse.

Could you tell me about your current research at the Institute at the moment?

At Cambridge I was involved in studies that demonstrated that stem cells in adult tissues don't divide asymmetrically into stem cells and differentiating cells, as it was thought, but divide randomly. This is termed neutral competition. The idea behind neutral competition is like the chance of a surname continuing, expanding or disappearing from society, independent of whether the family line is fertile. With stem cell lineages it's the same. This work lead me here to set up a lab working with flies,  to understand the molecular mechanisms of neutral competition (i.e. how the stem cells "flip-the-coin" as to whether they divide each time).

Neutral competition is very important in cancer initiation because it means that any mutation, even within a stem cell, has the possibility of being flushed away or of expanding, regardless of how advantageous it is. So I think if we can understand neutral competition, we can further understand tumour initiation.

How do you see your research being applied to the bigger picture?

Neutral competition has a negative and positive side; it can expand bad mutations or flush them away. And I think it will be interesting to try to see whether we can exploit that. I think if drosophila can start to help us understand more about neutral competition, we can understand more about cancer initiation, and from that we can design better and more quantitative ways of manipulating the decisions of the stem cells to our advantage, for example to try to avoid relapse. For instance, in cancer, you could force stem cells to differentiate or prevent them from maintaining stem potency.

What does your job involve today?

I've spent the last month mostly writing grants and now I have a bunch of experiments to start. Today I am flipping my fly colonies, which is routine. What I do is transfer the colonies to new tubes with new media and keep the old tube because that's where the colonies have been laying eggs. I also have to finish a couple of papers, start designing my future website and we need to redesign the new fellows' office.

What can you gain as a researcher from working at the Institute?

The mission of the Institute is very clear, to exploit cancer stem cells to benefit patients. To achieve this, we have this whole spectrum of people, from basic to translational research, who each have something to contribute. Even though most of the people here are very cancer centric, they all have the same background of developmental biology as I do, although they are applying it to solve slightly different problems. Because no one is working on exactly the same thing there is no competition; everyone is very eager to talk and learn about what each other is doing, so there is a lot of potential for synergy. The other thing I like is the amount of positive energy being put in to this new institute - it's like a baby! - it takes a lot of work but all the progress is so exciting.

(Interview and photograph: Sophie Hopkins, final year Biosciences undergraduate student)