Below, you will find an explanation of my research in plain English. For more technical and scientific details please explore the pages available from the main navigation menu at the top of the page.
At any given time in adulthood, our bodies are made of 3 trillion cells (blood excluded). These cells have to continually maintain tissue function — our skin protecting us from the environment, the lungs giving us oxygen, the heart pumping blood through our veins, etcetera. Every day, 1 billion of these cells (a number of cells similar to the number of people living in China, India or twice the number of Europeans) die and have to be replenished. By the end of our lifespan, we shed 30 trillion cells, a number that is 300 times the number of people that have ever inhabited planet Earth. This means that, at any given time, cells have to make choices such as dying, dividing, moving and becoming a different cell type to maintain our bodies. A vast amount of cell decisions is taken at any given moment.
What is taking these cellular decisions? Every cell has the capability to process information from the surrounding environment and from within themselves and then decide, autonomously, what to do. These decisions are taken by a complex network of chemical reactions, a sort of liquid computer, where transistors are replaced by biochemistry. These choices are taken to guarantee the appropriate ordered working of our bodies, but no system is infallible and cells do make mistakes. Like crossing the road with a traffic light, if the traffic light is red we do not cross. Once in a lifetime we may be distracted and start crossing with a red light. Most people will realise this and stop, safely, one step on the road. Others will arrive safely on the other side. Others will be saved by a nearby pedestrian, or by a car driver stopping suddenly. Unfortunately, some people may be hit by a car with fatal consequences, but in the worst case scenario, crossing the street with a red light will cause a pile-up of cars with horrific results. If you get 30 trillion people crossing roads, some of them will get it wrong with fatal consequences.
What is cancer? Cancer is the irreversible loss of tissue homeostasis or, in simpler terms, the uncontrolled growth of cells within an organ of our body. Cancer cells stop to abide by the ecological rules set by our bodies. Cancer cells will not care any longer for any traffic light, will cross the street without any regard for themselves or the others. They will ‘selfishly’ keep dividing, moving where they should not, shape-shifting into what they should not be. Cancer cells will keep taking decisions outside the rulebook that make our bodies the amazing machines they are.
Why cancer arise? We should keep in mind that cancer is not one disease, but hundreds of different diseases. What cancers have in common though is their uncontrolled growth. My impression is that we know much less than we think we know about the very early steps in oncogenesis. However, eventually, cancer will originate from genetic mutations, errors in the blueprints of the cell. Some of these errors can be inherited, others – most frequently – will be acquired during our lifespan. Genetic mutations can occur because during cell division, once in a while, errors can occur. Like typos that change the meaning of a sentence in a book, these errors may change how cells make decisions leading to uncontrolled growth. Then, of course, there is the environment. Smoking, alcohol, certain food, pollution and certain lifestyles may increase the probability to accrue these errors. Cells have mechanisms to correct these errors or to avoid the consequences that these errors may lead to. However, rarely, wrong decisions are made and cancer is triggered.
Can we cure cancer? If you wish to have more clinical information about cancer, I really advise visiting the pages of CRUK or the NHS. I also appeal to you to support these wonderful organisations with donations, volunteering and through lobbying your MP to support the NHS. I am not a clinician, but I can tell you that modern medicine can cure some cancers and extend the life of people affected by other cancers. Some tumours are yet evading our efforts to eradicate or control them, and this is why cancer research is still of fundamental importance.
What do I do?
With a small team of wonderful scientists and students, I try to understand how cells make decisions and how wrong decisions may lead to cancer and, hopefully, to leverage this information for diagnostics or therapeutic purposes. This is not an easy task because we have to measure and interfere with cell biochemistry and follow how cells respond to challenges, for instance, the presence of damage within their DNA or the occurrence of a specific mutation in a gene that will increase the likelihood of becoming cancer (an oncogene).
A discipline that has a very high potential to give us a better understanding of how cells take decisions is systems biology. Systems biology, a branch of mathematics, biophysics or biology (depending on who you ask to), is the attempt to describe, often with mathematical tools, the behaviour of the cell as a complex system of smaller parts (individual biochemical reactions).
However, decisions are rarely homogenous. Imagine to be in front of a traffic light, you are about to cross and the green sign started to blink. Do you cross? Do you always stop, or your choice depends on how late/early you are for an appointment? Does this depend on your age, the younger you are the faster you can cross, or the more likely you take risks. Or, it is 12.30PM. Are you going to have lunch? It depends if you are hungry, or on a diet, or if you are too busy, or perhaps what is on the menu.
Each cell may take different decisions and we try to provide better models for these cellular decisions studying the behaviour and the biochemistry of individual cells and the biochemistry of individual cells. To do this, we also need to develop better technologies and methodologies, particularly microscopy tools. I cannot claim I am already doing single-cell systems biology, but this is certainly what we are trying to establish. Along the way, we are trying to use any other established tools, to shed light on how cells make decisions, and how these go wrong in cancer.