We want to understand how cells communicate with each other and their environment as an organism develops and are working out how this communication breaks down as cancer develops.

Our cells are in constant communication with each other and the world around them, telling them when to grow and how to behave. We are trying to listen in on this molecular ‘language’ to understand the signals that cells send and receive, and how they are translated into actions.

We are particularly interested in a group of cellular signalling molecules known as the Transforming Growth Factor β (TGF-β) superfamily. These molecules pass between cells, telling them to switch important genes on or off and altering their behaviour. They play a critical role in early development as an organism grows from a fertilised egg into an embryo, but faulty TGF-β superfamily signals have also been implicated in the development of cancer and other diseases.

We are studying early development in zebrafish to find out how TGF-β signals work, using a wide range of laboratory techniques as well as computer models. And we’re also investigating what happens in cancer development, using lab-grown cancer cells, and tumours growing in mice as models for human tumours.

We want to know exactly how TGF-β family signals are transmitted inside cells once they arrive and how they switch genes on or off, both in normal development and as a tumour grows. Through our research, we hope to find new ways to diagnose cancer and treat it more effectively.