Understand how lifestyle factors, such as obesity, cause cancer
A bold new approach for an age-old problem
Targeting a tumour directly can kickstart its ‘survival mode’, leading to treatment resistance and metastasis. STORMing Cancer’s stealth approach instead targets the cells and tissues surrounding a tumour and could benefit up to 1 in 4 people with cancer around the world.
One of the most powerful tools in the immune system’s armoury, inflammation is a carefully choreographed process that can eject, expel and eliminate infectious organisms and diseased cells. It’s normally very tightly regulated, but it can spiral out of control and become chronic.
Despite chronic inflammation being linked to an astounding 20-25% of cancers around the world, we still know very little about how it drives the development of the disease.
Tackling this challenge is the STORMing Cancer team, taking our thinking about inflammation-associated cancer in entirely new directions – specifically, outwards. While most treatments directly target a tumour cell, the team is turning their focus to the inflamed, but otherwise healthy, cells and non-cellular tissue components in its surrounding neighbourhood.
By restoring these surroundings back to a normal state, the team believes they could gradually guide the tumour back to benignity (an unharmful state) or prevent it from further growth.
STORMing Cancer spans 3 continents and unites experts from biology, physics and engineering. Their perspective on malignancy is a world away from the traditional, cancer cell-centric view of the disease.
Professor Thea Tlsty, Principal Investigator, STORMing Cancer
Professor of Pathology
Chronic inflammation is involved in 1 out of 4 cancers, killing 1.7 million people worldwide annually. Yet, the role of chronic inflammation in the transformation of healthy cells into cancer cells remains poorly understood. Our team is excited to use pioneering approaches and tools to solve this puzzle, and to apply this knowledge toward preventing or reverting these cancers, hoping to improve treatment for those suffering with these diseases.
The outside-in approach
Central to this idea is the complex web of interactions between a cell – whether cancerous or not – and its inflamed surroundings. Of particular focus are the extracellular matrix (ECM) and stromal cells which surround epithelial cells in many tissues to provide support and to control intercellular communication.
Chronic inflammation gradually alters the structure of the ECM, resulting in the release of factors that are helpful to a tumour cell, which is further fuelled by pro-inflammatory molecules released from the stromal cells. Together, these changes erode a cell’s interaction with its surroundings, pushing it down a pathway to malignancy.
The team is using a myriad of techniques to understand how these interactions change throughout the course of inflammation. They are hoping to identify key moments that could be targeted to slow, prevent or reverse the process.
Pioneering 'organ-on-a-chip' technology
In addition to traditional cell cultures and models, the team is harnessing novel ‘organ-on-a-chip' microfluidic devices. Housed on what looks like a clear computer memory stick, the chip can be used to mimic the more complex properties of an organ – such as the breathing motions of a lung, the way nutrients and bacteria interact with the bowel or how blood moves through it – providing researchers with a more life-like representation of an organ, but on a micro scale.
University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)
Weizmann Institute of Science
Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle
The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Gastric Pre-cancer Biology
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)
Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
Deborah Collyar has applied a wealth of leadership skills from her successful IT business career to help create patient-centered medical research and healthcare after her first cancer diagnosis at the age of 32. She founded the international network, Patient Advocates In Research (PAIR) in 1996, “where research meets reality.” Her work encompasses many diseases, programs and policies at grassroots, national and international levels. Deborah works with academic institutions, government agencies, non-profits, community organizations, and patients of all kinds.
Patient Advocates In Research (PAIR)
Affiliated to the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Cancer Institute; National Cancer Research Institute Consumer Forum; Independent Cancer Patient Voice
Now in his third decade as a patient advocate, Richard has had successful professional careers in teaching, journalism and local government. He was a carer for both his parents during terminal cancers, and has survived two cancers himself, and a heart emergency, with subsequent late effects and co-morbidities. He has participated in 13 research studies, including 4 interventional trials.
Richard chaired the NCRI Consumer Forum and now chairs the Stakeholder Forum for BBMRI-ERIC (European biobanking research infrastructure). He also sits on groups for National Institute of Health Research, NHS England, PHE-NCRAS (Public Health England-National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service), Genomics England and the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, and works with industry and patient groups in the UK, Europe and Canada. He is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Research Involvement and Engagement.
Richard has worked with Cancer Research UK since the charity was founded and is a Patient Advocate on Cancer Grand Challenges STORMing Cancer team.
Chair and Co-Founder, My Gut Feeling: Stomach Cancer Foundation of Canada