Cancer touches all of our lives in one way or another, be it through the loss of a friend, relative or partner or, hopefully, their survival. Middlesex University is pioneering research that aims to reduce the number of people dying from this vicious disease.
At the Centre for Investigative and Diagnostic Oncology, a vibrant cancer research centre founded in 2008, the eminent and award-winning immunologist Professor Ivan Roitt leads a team of internationally-regarded scientists all motivated by a passionate belief that one day they might find a way to beat cancer.
The editor of Roitt's Essential Immunology (now in its 12th edition) is leading a project targeting stem cells in the hope that they can be detected and eradicated. Middlesex researchers will strike tumour cell surface markers known as c-Met with a monoclonal antibody produced by arGEN-X, a Belgian company which is part funding the department's ground-breaking research. Experiments have indicated that the antibody may be effective in stopping such stem cells from operating and giving rise to a tumour.
"In tumours, stem cells are sinister. A stem cell divides and produces it own progeny and on certain occasions it divides and produces another stem cell and a more differentiated cell that's going to form the tumour. The sinister part is that the stem cell usually doesn't respond to normal chemotherapy and we are left with these nasty individual cells. Our task is to try and hit the stem cells using the c-Met as a target," explains Professor Roitt.
Middlesex will focus on acute myelocytic leukaemia (AML). "This is where one cell type in the blood goes mad. A tumour arises because of normal constraints on cell division are lost so they go mad and don't care about the rest of the body; they selfishly divide and divide and divide until they consume you," says Roitt, who has teamed up with research clinician Professor David Lynch at University College Hospital.
"My colleague Dr Torben Lund and myself are now doing experiments to detect the important surface molecules that characterise the stem cells of AML. We have the facilities here for phenotyping the right sort of molecules. Professor Lynch will apply for ethical approval and we will work on AML cells taken directly from the patient," Roitt goes on. "If this succeeds we will have done something incredibly important because we could treat people with AML in a way that prevents them having to have normal chemotherapy and provides generic examples that we could apply to all kinds of tumours that have stem cells. It could be a real breakthrough."