Downward lab Oncogene Biology Laboratory

Mass cytometry images of carcinogen induced lung tumours in mice.

We are investigating how the molecular signals received by cells make them grow and multiply, and how faulty signals lead to cancer.

Billions of new cells are made in the body every day, replacing worn-out, dead or damaged cells and keeping us healthy. Cells multiply by dividing – an existing cell splits in half to create two new ones. This process is very tightly organised so that new cells are made only when and where they are needed.

Faults in key genes controlling cell division (known as oncogenes) make cells multiply out of control, leading to cancer. We are investigating how oncogenes function in healthy cells, and finding out what happens when they go wrong. Some types of cancer can even become ‘addicted’ to certain oncogenes, relying on just one faulty gene to drive their unchecked growth.

We are particularly interested in an oncogene known as Ras, which is faulty in around one in five cancers, including bowel, pancreas and lung tumours. Ras normally sends signals inside cells that tell them to multiply at the right time and in the right place. But it is permanently switched on and overactive in cancer cells, so they keep growing out of control.

Finding out how to switch off Ras signalling could be a powerful way to treat cancer. It is difficult to develop drugs that deactivate Ras, so we are searching for other genes that also play a role in the signalling pathway that might be easier to target, either alone or in combination with additional drugs that hit other parts of the pathway.

Our research is leading us towards exciting new ideas for future anti-cancer therapies designed to specifically target tumours while leaving healthy cells unharmed.