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Professor Matt Smalley

"We look at things from different points of view; everyone has a complementary way of looking at this problem which means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

Who are you?

I'm a senior lecturer in Cardiff School of Biosciences and Director of the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute. I was recruited to Cardiff in January 2012, specifically to join this new Institute.

What do you think cancer stem cells are?

For the purposes of my research, as a breast cancer specialist, I think of cancer stem cells as cells which are capable of regenerating a tumour following therapy. And which, when cells spread from a tumour around the body, are the ones that survive that process and grow. The term cancer stem cell is used very loosely and there's no definitive definition.

Why does that mean they're interesting to you as a researcher?

Ultimately, what I'm interested in is some sort of clinical benefit from targeting cancer stem cells, either directly to treat cancer spread (metastasis) or in combined therapies which will prevent tumour regrowth. But also, if we can identify cancer stem cell-like behaviour in tumours when they're originally diagnosed, we might be able to predict ones which are more likely to metastasise earlier and then offer more intense therapies using established treatments.

Could you tell me about your research at the moment?

So, we've got three main strands: normal stem cell biology, the origins of different tumour types, and the origins of different cell types within a tumour (particularly cancer stem cells).

As a basic research project, we are still trying to understand the regulation of the normal stem cells and other functional cell populations within the breast; how the cell numbers are balanced and regulated during growth.

The majority of our work, though, is looking at breast cancer, in particular the origin of tumours; how different stem cell types can give rise to different sorts of breast cancer. So we're creating genetic models to try to understand what regulates the different biology and origin of all the different breast cancer types. There are 10 to 20 different types of breast cancer, depending on how you classify it, so this research will hopefully give us a better chance of doing personalised medicine.

The other thing we're trying to do is to identify the different cancer stem cell populations within the main subtypes of breast cancer. Trying to work out how they arise, how they develop, how they're responsible for resistance, whether resistance generates cancer stem cells, whether therapy actually can generate cancer stem cells as a resistance mechanism.

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

Our research will give us a handle on ways that we can use personalised therapy to deal with different breast cancer cell types. I hope it will provide tools which clinicians can use to get prognostic information about how a patients' tumour is likely to spread or not spread.

Hopefully I would like it to lead to some new therapies for breast cancer, specifically affecting that stem cell-like behaviour.

What does your job involve today?

Today, I am working on a paper which is trying to describe our findings in normal mammary stem cells and how they relate to metastatic behaviour of triple negative breast cancer. So right at this moment, when you came in, I was trying to get my head around how I could best present the massive amount of gene expression data I have in a one A4 figure!

How does working within this Institute help you as a researcher?

What I love about being here is the critical mass of people who are all interested in the same sorts of things that I'm interested in. Everyone is looking at similar things from a different point of view, so we all complement each other's work really well. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts.

Plus the absolute top notch, state of the art equipment that we've got here. We couldn't do the research that we want to do without it.

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