10 things we’ve found out since the Crick was established

It's two years since the Crick officially opened its doors. To mark our anniversary, we’ve chosen 10 highlights from the 1,200+ journal papers our researchers have published since we were established.

Predicting lung cancer’s return

Lab: Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory

Group Leader: Charlie Swanton 

Researchers in Charlie's lab found that unstable chromosomes within lung tumours increase the risk of cancer returning after surgery. They used this new knowledge to determine the risk of relapse up to a year before cancer returns.

The team hope to create a clinical blood test that quantifies circulating tumour DNA, to identify patients to treat even if they have no clinical signs of disease, and also monitor how well therapies are working. This represents new hope for combating lung cancer relapse following surgery, which occurs in up to half of all patients. 

Read the full news article

Lung cancer

Tumour DNA circulating in a patient's blood may be able to predict whether their lung cancer will come back after surgery. 

Genome editing reveals gene crucial for early development

Fluorescent images showing gene expression in two early human embryos, with colours representing gene expression.

Fluorescent images showing gene expression in early human embryos. 

Lab: Human Embryo and Stem Cell Laboratory

Group leader: Kathy Niakan

Kathy's group used genome editing technology to reveal the role of a key gene in human embryos in the first few days of development. It was the first time that genome editing had been used to study gene function in human embryos and gain a better understanding the biology of our early development.

They found that a gene which produces a protein called OCT4 is crucial in the formation of the 'blastocyst' stage of human embryos around seven days after fertilisation. Blastocysts are balls of around 200 cells.

Read the full news story.

Another reason to eat your greens?

Lab: AhRimmunity Laboratory

Group leader: Gitta Stockinger 

Gitta's team found that nutrients in certain vegetables can boost the effectiveness of a protein that protects us from pollutants, toxins and pathogens. The protein, called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), acts as a vital control centre to maintain our immune defences, particularly in our intestines, lungs and skin.

Even though the study was in mice, the findings suggest that we could all benefit from eating more vegetables such as kale, broccoli and cauliflower, which contain nutrients that promote AhR activity. 

Read the full news article

Microscopic image of a mouse colon.

Microscopic image showing the healthy colon of a mouse fed on an I3C-enriched diet.

Molecular ‘magnets’ could improve cancer therapy

A mouse tumour (grey/white areas) being infiltrated by cDC1 (yellow cells). 

Lab: Immunobiology Laboratory

Group leader: Caetano Reis e Sousa

Caetano’s team discovered that immune cells called natural killer cells build up in tumours and release chemicals that attract other specialised immune cells known as cDC1. These cDC1 cells can trigger anti-cancer immune responses.

The team also found a potential way of boosting the effectiveness of immunotherapies by blocking the activity of a molecule called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). Cancer cells produce PGE2 to suppress natural killer cell activity and reduce cDC1 cells' ability to respond to the chemical attractants. 

Read the full news story.

Two and three

Protein rings act like rock-climbing ‘carabiners’ to bind DNA strands

Lab: Chromosome Segretation Laboratory

Group leader: Frank Uhlmann

DNA molecules are packaged up in rings of proteins within our cells. But until this research, we didn’t know how the protein rings loop together two DNA molecules to allow processes such as chromosome separation to happen correctly. 

By recreating how cohesin binds DNA in the test tube, Frank’s team saw that cohesin acts like a rock-climbing carabiner – after binding one DNA molecule, the cohesin ring opens and binds a second. The second DNA is single-stranded, allowing DNA replication to occur and produce double-stranded DNA.

Read more on page 22 of our 2017/18 annual review

Cohesin ring

Molecular model of a cohesin ring.

Telomerase's dark side discovered

Chromosomes with telomeres shown in red

Mouse chromosomes with telomeres labelled in red. 

Lab: DSB Repair Metabolism Laboratory

Group leader: Simon Boulton

An enzyme called telomerase is crucial for maintaining the ends of chromosomes as our cells grow, divide and age. But Simon's group discovered a surprising activity of telomerase - it actually causes the rapid loss of telomeres, a key structure that normally protects chromosome ends.

When activated abnormally, telomerase is a driver of cancer as it allows cells to divide uncontrollably. Understanding more about telomerase and its functions is giving new insight into how some classes of anti-cancer drugs work. 

Read more on page 25 of our 2017/18 annual review.

Understanding the architecture of our ‘second brain’

Understanding the architecture of our ‘second brain’

Lab: Development and Homeostasis of the Nervous System Laboratory

Group leader: Vassilis Pachnis

Scientists in Vassilis' lab made an important step in understanding the organisation of nerve cells embedded within the gut that control its function.

They revealed how the enteric nervous system – a chaotic network of half a billion nerve cells and many more supporting cells inside the gut wall, often called the 'second brain'– is formed during mouse development.

The discovery could give insight into the occurrence of common gastrointestinal diseases, including irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation.

Read more on page 18 of our 2017/18 annual review.

Enteric nervous system

Multicoloured families of cells in the gut wall. 

New antibody may herald universal flu vaccine

Microscope image of flu viruses

Microscopic image of the flu virus. 

Lab: Structural Biology of Disease Processes Lab

Group leader: Steve Gamblin 

Crick scientists studied a new antibody, called MEDI8852, that shows promise as a potential treatment for influenza A by fighting several strains on a number of fronts, including blocking essential steps of the virus’s lifecycle and engaging the human immune system to eliminate virus-infected cells.

This research has implications for the design of a universal influenza vaccine, which could protect us against a future pandemic strain. The antibody is now being tested as a possible flu treatment in early clinical trials.

Read more on page 17 of our 2016/17 annual review

Cell cycle regulation theory proven after 20 years

Lab: Cell Cycle Laboratory

Group leader: Paul Nurse

The discovery of a family of proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases (CDK) won Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick, a share of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Now after two decades, his research group has found convincing evidence for a theory, first proposed by his lab in 1996, about how CDK imposes order on the processes of cell division.

Understanding how CDK regulates cell division in yeast tells us a lot about how the same processes work in human cells. This is central to our understanding of cancer, which arises when cells divide uncontrollably. 

Read more on page 28 of our 2016/17 annual review

Schizosaccharomyces pombe

Schizosaccharomyces pombe (yeast) cells.  

DNA replication recreated in test tube

DNA double helix

DNA double helix. 

Lab: Chromosome Replication Laboratory

Group leader: John Diffley

How molecular machinery gets loaded onto DNA ready to create new copies of our genetic data was revealed by scientists in John's lab. An enzyme called DNA helicase controls the initial unwinding of the DNA helix. The Crick team found that one helicase is loaded on to the helix at one replication site, while the other is loaded at a distant, previously unrecognised site. It then tracks along the DNA to join its partner and gets ready for action.

This is a piece of the puzzle of how our genomes are replicated, a process that tends to become misregulated in cancer. The team now want to look at whether helicase loading shows differences in cancer cells.

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