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Professor Alan Clarke

January 2016 - it is with great sadness that we learnt of the untimely death of Professor Alan Clarke.

"We want to question the original cancer stem cell hypothesis… we have a slightly less rigorous view that the cells within the tumour might be quite plastic."

Who are you?

I'm Professor Alan Clarke and I am Director of the European Cancer Stem Cell Research Institute. I'm also Head of Research in Cardiff School of Biosciences and Head of the Cardiff CRUK Cancer Centre.

What do you think cancer stem cells are and why do you think they're so interesting?

We think that a cancer stem cell may have a lot of similarities with a normal stem cell. So we're looking at the way that normal stem cells are converted into cancer stem cells to give us new insights into the way we might think about therapies and prognostic indicators, in terms and survival and likely response to therapies. We also want to question the original cancer stem cell hypothesis.

The original hypothesis was led by evidence that if we take a tumour apart into its various different cell types, there will be some cells that will form a tumour again (cancer stem cells), and the rest won't. And it's very dogmatic about the two types of cell. We have a slightly less rigorous view that actually the cells with cancer stem cell properties might be quite plastic. So one day they'll look like a cancer stem cell but the next day they won't.

The concern is that targeting drugs in terms of the original hypothesis will kill the active cancer stem cells at any one time, but the tumour might recognise this and tell other cells to repopulate the cancer stem cell niche. This isn't a problem, it just means that you need to recognise that it might be an issue when developing a therapy and probably align it with a more conventional therapy at the same time.

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

We have a number of different research activities aimed at understanding the genetics which drive cancer development and progression. What we do is model genetic changes which will either predispose to cancer or reduce the risk of cancer. We do this invarious different systems, whether in cell culture or within the mouse, focusing mainly on bowel cancer.

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

We want to try to prove that the particular genetic changes we're looking at would be good targets for new prognostic indicators and new cancer therapies. So we're trying to ask different types of questions about the way cancer develops and the way that cancer relapses. And that's partly do with this notion of a cancer stem cell; the idea that within cancers, not all cells are equivalent, some cells are more aggressive.

What does your job involve today?

Today I'm writing some exam questions on Genetic Engineering for undergraduates. Later, we're having a management team meeting of the cancer stem cell institute, to discuss various issues in terms of personnel and so on. I'm hosting someone from Glasgow University who's giving a talk this lunchtime and then I am starting to prep for a Medical Research Council board meeting on Monday and Tuesday, where I have to read about 600 pages of application and present it to the
board. Apart from that, it's a quiet day!

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

I think the big difference it's made is that you can see it very clearly that people interact and integrate more. The different groups that we've got here are definitely more open to simple interactions and discussing things with each other.

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