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Seeking out cancer stem cells

13 February 2013

Prof. Alan Clarke, School of Biosciences, has received two separate research grants to forward his leading edge research into the properties of a subset of cancer cells, referred to as cancer stem cells, which are thought to drive the formation, growth and spread of cancer. 

Funding from the The Prostate Cancer Charity will support Dr Valerie Meniel, a postdoctoral research associate, for the next three years, to investigate this important cell type in prostate cancer. It is known that several key signalling pathways are important in the development, progression and relapse of prostate cancer; however the precise roles of these pathways and the interplay between them remains poorly understood. What is more, the influence of these signalling pathways on the number and activity of cancer stem cells has not been investigated to date. Prof. Clarke expects that these pathways drive both tumour growth and progression by directly expanding and activating the cancer stem cell population. Clarifying our understanding about the ways that these pathways drive tumour formation and growth will ultimately assist in the diagnosis and treatment options for this cancer type. 

Similarly, funding from Association of International Cancer Research (AICR) will support Dr Sophie Wang, a clinical research fellow, for three years to investigate the ways that a signalling pathway known as the PI3kinase pathway can modulate the number and activity of intestinal stem cells. Intestinal stem cells are found in the epithelial (lining) compartment of the intestine and they are responsible for maintaining a healthy intestinal lining containing all the required types of cells in this compartment. Preliminary data from Prof. Clarke's group has shown that activation of the PI3kinase signalling pathway in a different compartment and cell type (i.e. those cells that lie underneath the epithelial lining cells) induces changes in the intestinal stem cells, and this seems sufficient to initiate intestinal tumour formation and drive tumour progression. Dr Wang will investigate the mechanisms underlying this new paradigm and hopes her findings can inform clinical practice and provide value with potentially new diagnostic and therapeutic application. 

Prof. Clarke comments "These two grants are both asking fundamental questions about whether a driver population of cells, termed cancer stem cells, truly exists within prostate and intestinal cancers. This work will examine how this population of cells may drive tumourigenesis. These studies will hopefully reveal a new mechanism of tumourigenesis and provide new therapeutic targets. "

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