This week’s guest blogger is Laura Blackburn who works as a Scientific Communications Officer at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute (CRI). After a PhD in Zoology, she dabbled in science writing, first as an intern at Science, then as the News and Views Editor at the Journal of Experimental Biology. She joined the CRI in 2007 where she writes and edits articles on their research in print and online, organises scientific meetings and acts as a coordinator for internal and external communications.
It’s just after lunch on a Wednesday and my brain is tired. A background in Zoology (specifically insect physiology and behaviour) is no match for the intricacies of the regulation of gene transcription. The Institute’s lunchtime talks, from our PhD students and postdocs, stretch my brain and provide a fantastic opportunity to absorb as much information as I can while eating lunch. I’m hoping, in my case at least, that chewing while listening increases my chances of absorbing a lot of what is being said. As a former working scientist I am lucky that I can still indulge my love of learning science, without the hours of necessary lab-time.
The research at the Cambridge Research Institute (CRI), one of the five Institutes core-funded by Cancer Research UK, covers a broad spread from basic science to clinical research. Our 22 research groups focus on basic cell biology such as regulation of gene transcription, epigenetics and senescence, through to computational biology and statistics, cancer stem cells, imaging and experimental therapeutics. One of the CRI’s goals is translational research, also known as ‘bench to bedside’ research that aims to take the discoveries made in the lab through to practical application in the clinic as quickly as possible. You can see Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital out of the Institute’s windows, so it’s exciting to think that treatments developed in our laboratories could end up being used in a building less than five minutes walk away.
Picture of the CRI. Credit: Charles Thomson/Cancer Research UK
My role in all of this is to help make our research accessible to the outside world, from other scientists, through to our supporters, which includes donors, fundraising groups and volunteers. Every November my team begins work on the scientific report, the annual review of the Institute’s achievements. I write some sections of the report and edit the rest, generating a bundle of Word documents that my colleague turns into a coherent printed publication. While this report is an important annual record of our progress, it’s not that user-friendly for non-scientists so we also produce a layman-friendly booklet for our visitors. We’re lucky to have so many dedicated and enthusiastic supporters and it’s important that we make our work accessible to them. We hope that by providing this information, giving them lab tours and talks from scientists, demystifies what we do and makes our research more accessible and less intimidating.
We’re currently working on the third edition of our booklet so I have been refreshing my knowledge on what our researchers do. In order to effectively write and edit articles for non-specialists, it really helps me to get the concepts clear in my mind, hence my seminar-induced brain ache.
One area that I have been learning about this week is DNA quadruplexes, four-stranded stable structures that commonly occur in guanine-rich reaches of DNA and are studied by Shankar Balasubramanian’s research group. The interesting thing about guanine(G)-quadruplexes is that they are common in the promoter region of many genes, including some oncogenes. Therefore one of their implicated roles is in the regulation of gene expression. A proposed novel anti-cancer strategy involves developing therapeutics that stabilise G-quadruplexes in the promoters of oncogenes, repressing transcription and therefore preventing the production of the protein. One of the group’s research goals is to map where G-quadruplexes form in the genome using a variety of chemical probes that stabilise these structures in the cell. The next step is to isolate the genomic DNA attached to these probes and use next-generation sequencing technology to find the location of the G-quadruplexes in the genome. Knowing the location of these G-quadruplex ‘hot spots’ can give researchers a clearer idea of how their formation could be used to develop novel approaches to treating cancer.
Another field that I have been reading up on is molecular diagnostics, studied by Nitzan Rosenfeld’s group. This makes use of the fact that the DNA sequence of the cells in a tumour differ from the sequence in normal cells. The techniques that the group are developing involve studying tumour-specific DNA molecules that are circulating in the blood, meaning that studying them only involves taking a blood sample, rather than a much more invasive tumour biopsy. The blood sample can therefore contain a lot of valuable information about the cancer, such as how it is progressing, whether it might relapse, or how it is responding to therapy. It is not entirely clear how these small sections of DNA end up in a patient’s blood, but it is probably due to tumour cell death. The blood also contains a higher amount of normal DNA than tumour-specific DNA, so picking out and accurately measuring the tumour-specific DNA is not easy. This work is still in its early stages so the lab are also studying how the collection and processing of blood samples affects the amount and quality of circulating tumour DNA that they can find. They are developing methods for analysing the circulating DNA sequences, so that this approach can be adapted for simple use in the clinic. In parallel, they are exploring how blood DNA levels change during the course of patients’ treatment. The major challenge of this project is to design diagnostic tests that are informative and give results that are easy to interpret and could give clinicians the information they need to optimise a patient’s treatment.
With an overhaul of the CRI’s website coming up in the next fortnight, I’m looking forward to getting to grips with the latest advances in everyone’s work and updating the site. The next few years are going to be an exciting time for the CRI and although I can’t claim to be a cancer expert by any stretch of the imagination, I can be sure that most weeks I will learn something new.