Blue background with sketches of tumours down the right-hand side

Chapter 2: Understanding cancer

Chapter 2: Understanding cancer

Next: Reasons for hope

Chapter 3


There are over 200 types of cancer and a wide variety of causes. Causes can be genetic, lifestyle-related, or down to other external factors. Sometimes these causes may have an impact on each other.

Cancer is a huge and complex area of study, and about half of the hundred or so research groups at the Crick are working on it.

Some of these groups partner with NHS hospitals and biotech companies, who use the cutting-edge science at the Crick to create treatments using living human cells and cell materials.

Together, they collaborate to carry out different kinds of research, including:

  • Lab research – studies animals, cells, molecules, or genes to understand the changes that occur naturally within cells and molecules, or how these are disrupted during the development of cancer
  • Translational research – turns scientific knowledge into new tests and treatments for cancer
  • Clinical research – studies the application of treatments and patient responses, including clinical trials to test new therapies



In this film, Karen Vousden (Senior Group Leader, Francis Crick Institute, and Chief Scientist, Cancer Research UK) explains why it is taking so long to find cures for cancer.

Vivian Li leads the Crick Stem Cell and Cancer Biology Laboratory. In this film, Vivian talks to George Alagiah – a BBC journalist and author with stage four bowel cancer – about her award-winning research, which uses the bowel as a model to study stem cells. Stem cells are special cells that are able to develop into many different cell types.


There are various ways to study diseases, including using animals, but there are also other models, such as examining cells taken from patients. Researchers will carefully select the best method for their work, and this will be affected by considerations like the type of disease and the purpose of the study. Animal research continues to help us understand the growth and spread of cancer, and to develop new ways of diagnosing, treating, and preventing the disease.

In these videos, scientists from the Crick, its partner Achilles Therapeutics, and Adam Blain, a lawyer and writer living with brain cancer, explore the use of animals in cancer research.

Oncology quote

All illustrations © Rebecca Sadie May 2021. Credit: ‘Illustrations by Rebecca Sadie May' For use on this project only (Francis Crick Institutes Outwitting Cancer exhibition, 2021). Not to be shared, altered or distributed in any way. Adobe Photoshop 21.2 (Macintosh)

Last video

Testing cancer treatments is a crucial part of the research journey that takes scientific advances from the lab bench to the bedside. In this video, Dr Mariam Jamal-Hanjani of University College London Cancer Institute explains how a clinical trial works.