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Research into cancer biology

Cancer cells growing in the labIn 1597, Sir Francis Bacon said that "knowledge is power".

This is certainly still true when it comes to cancer - the more that we understand about fundamental cancer biology, the better equipped we are to beat the disease.

Cancer Research UK funds a vast array of world-leading research into cancer biology.

Over the years, our scientists' discoveries have been crucial in the development of many cancer drugs - helping to save many thousands of lives. And they continue to pave the way for future cancer treatments.

Understanding the origins of cancer

The main focus for scientists who carry out such research is to understand what makes cancer cells different from healthy cells.

Based in labs across the UK, our researchers study molecules - for example, proteins or DNA - that are involved in important processes such as cell growth or movement. They want to find out what goes wrong with them when cancer develops.

The foundation of drug discovery

Cancer cells growing in the labInsights in the lab don’t immediately translate into new treatments, as you can see from the examples below.

But this cutting-edge work is as important as laying the foundations of a new building - it underpins the discovery of every new cancer drug.

Listen to an audio package featuring scientists Professor Steve Jackson and Professor Paul Workman talking about the first steps in the journey to discovering new cancer drugs:

Our impact

Here are just a few examples of how work funded by Cancer Research UK has played a vital role in the development of new treatments:

Growth factors

Our scientists helped establish the link between some cancers and ‘growth factor receptor’ proteins on the surface of cells. 1-4 Their work was a crucial early step in the development of the breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin). It also underpinned the development of erlotinib (Tarceva) for lung and pancreatic cancer and cetuximab (Erbitux) for bowel and other cancers.

Targeting leukaemia

We led efforts in the 1980s to locate cancer genes within the human genome. Our researchers tracked down an important gene called ABL 5 and later showed that it is involved in chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). 6 This paved the way for the development of imatinib (Glivec), a drug that has transformed the outlook for people with CML.

Understanding lymphoma

Our researchers made major contributions to the understanding of the immune system and treatment of B-cell lymphomas using monoclonal antibodies. 7-10 This work laid the foundations for the development of rituximab (MabThera), which is used today to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

All our work - from research into cancer biology through to clinical trials - would not be possible without the generosity of our supporters.

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  1.  Downward, J. et al. Close similarity of epidermal growth factor receptor and v-erb-B oncogene protein sequences. Nature 307, 521-527 (1984). PubMed link
  2. Haley, J. et al. The human EGF receptor gene: structure of the 110 kb locus and identification of sequences regulating its transcription. Oncogene Res, 375-396 (1987). PubMed link
  3. Venter, D., Tuzi, N., Kumar, S. & Gullick, W. Overexpression of the c-erbB-2 oncoprotein in human breast carcinomas: immunohistological assessment correlates with gene amplification. Lancet 2, 69-72 (1987). PubMed link
  4. McCann, A.H. et al. Prognostic significance of c-erbB-2 and estrogen receptor status in human breast cancer. Cancer Res 51, 3296-3303 (1991). PubMed link
  5.  Heisterkamp, N. et al. Chromosomal localization of human cellular homologues of two viral oncogenes. Nature 299, 747-749 (1982). PubMed link
  6.  de Klein, A. et al. A cellular oncogene is translocated to the Philadelphia chromosome in chronic myelocytic leukaemia. Nature 300, 765-767 (1982). PubMed link
  7.  Glennie, M.J. & Stevenson, G.T. Univalent antibodies kill tumour cells in vitro and in vivo. Nature 295, 712-714 (1982). PubMed link
  8. Stevenson, G. & Stevenson, F. Treatment of lymphoid tumors with anti-idiotype antibodies. Springer Semin Immunopathol 6, 99-115 (1983). PubMed link
  9. Stevenson, F., Glennie, M., Johnston, D., Tutt, A. & Stevenson, G. Consumption of monoclonal anti-idiotypic antibody by neoplastic B lymphocytes: a guide for immunotherapy. Br J Cancer 50, 407-413 (1984). PubMed link
  10. Glennie, M. & Stevenson, G. Derivatives of anti-idiotype antibodies in the treatment of B-cell lymphoma. Adv Exp Med Biol 186, 843-853 (1985). PubMed link
Updated: 25 September 2009