The research funded by York Against Cancer takes place in the Jack Birch Unit – part of the Biology Department in the University of York, under the guidance of its Director – Professor Jenny Southgate – but it also involves working closely with staff at York Hospital.
Professor Southgate explained: “Our remit covers everything from basic cell biology, to tissue engineering and computational modelling - basically, the development of systems to enable us to understand what is going on in the development of cancer.
“A very important part of our work has included developing ways of studying human cells in the laboratory – without the need to use animals in testing.
“We are creating tissues in the laboratory that are physiologically ‘real’ – and this has far-reaching importance – not just for cancer research, but also for the pharmaceutical industry, who will be able to use the tissues we create to test new drugs and treatments.
“This is important and timely work, as the pharmaceutical industry is realising the limitations of animal research.”
Prof. Southgate went on to say that cancer research at the Jack Birch Unit is based on a unique approach. “A lot of cancer research starts with examining tumours, whereas our research concerns the transition from a normal cell to a cancer cell. We start with a normal human cell and introduce cancer genes so that we can learn about the impact and the development of the cancer.”
“We concentrate a lot of our attention on the bladder and bladder cancer, but the things we discover have a great deal of relevance to other cancers,” she said.
Researchers at the Unit take normal cells and add cancer genes then look at how this modifies the behaviour of the cells in the laboratory. They then compare how normal cells and those with modified genes respond to drugs designed to hit cancer cells.
“What we found is that normal cells are sensitive to drugs, but once you add in a cancer gene they become less susceptible. This suggests new strategies for using drugs – for example, putting normal cells to ‘sleep’ and then using drugs to target only the cancer cells.”