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Understanding cancer biology

Cancer is caused when cells within the body accumulate genetic mutations and start to grow in an uncontrolled manner. Understanding how cancer develops and progresses, including how gene mutations drive the growth and spread of cancer cells, and how tumours interact with their surrounding environment, is vital for the discovery of new targeted cancer treatments.

Breast cancer cells (green) invading through a layer of fibroblasts (red). (Luke Henry / the ICR, 2009)

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research are teasing out the roles a cancer’s gene mutations play in evading the controls that keep healthy cells in check, so they can identify promising new targets for cancer drugs. They are exploring how genetic mutations allow cancer cells to divide more frequently, avoid cell death and invade neighbouring tissues to spread locally and around the body.

Our research is also exploring the way cancer cells work together within the tumour ecosystem, and exploit surrounding tissues to promote their own growth and spread – for example by encouraging the growth of blood vessels to feed them nutrients and oxygen. Most cancer patients die as result of cancer that has moved away from the original site and spread around the body. Our scientists are working to understand the process by which cancer spreads, known as metastasis, with the aim of developing new treatments that prevent cancer spread or target metastatic tumours.

Whereas it was once thought tumours were largely homogeneous, it is now understood that an individual cancer is made up of different groups of cells, each with different arrays of genetic mutations. Scientists believe this genetic complexity arises in part because tumours develop through a process of evolution by natural selection, just as species of animals and plants have done. This helps cancer cells to adapt to their local environment, grow and survive, and avoid the effects of cancer treatments.

At the ICR, we believe that an appreciation of the genetic diversity of tumours, and of their dynamic evolution, is essential to develop more effective cancer treatments. We are particularly interested in understanding how tumours can acquire gene mutations conferring resistance to cancer treatments, and how we can use this knowledge to overcome drug resistance through new treatments or treatment combinations.

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