STORMing Cancer

Challenge

Understand how lifestyle factors, such as obesity, cause cancer

Researchers
14
Principal Investigator
Professor Thea Tlsty
Location
Canada, Israel, UK and USA
Funded By
Cancer Research UK - £20m
Specialisms
Biology, bioengineering, immunology, gastroenterology, pathology

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.   

New directions

Funded by:

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CRUK Logo

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 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.   

Professor Thea Tlsty and colleague

Harnessing the power of discovery

This stealth approach could not only guide cancer cells back to a healthy state, it could also reverse inflammation in people with conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and Barrett’s oesophagus, who have a higher risk of developing cancer.  

The link between inflammation and cancer was first observed way back in 1863. Now, more than 150 years later, STORMing Cancer hopes their novel approach will finally unravel the mystery, benefitting up to 1 in 4 people with cancer around the world. 

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. 

Professor Thea Tlsty, Principal Investigator, STORMing Cancer
Professor Uri Alon
Professor Sui Huang
Lorenzo Ferri
James R. Goldenring
Professor Donald Ingber
Dr Stuart McDonald
Professor Garry Nolan
Dr Kole Roybal
Dr Doug Winton
Deborah Collyar
Ann Russell
Richard Stephens
John Sauter
Teresa Tiano