Today we are looking back at some of the culinary creations from researchers at Cancer Research UK Birmingham. We’ll see the ways scientists are trying to fight tumours, how DNA is organised, and there’s even a cake that should come with a Spandau Ballet theme tune. This is the Great Science Cake Off – Birmingham.
Birmingham was the first CRUK centre and opened its door in 2009. Since that time researchers at the centre have focused on a number of cancers including bladder cancer, leukaemia and children’s cancers, building on expertise in cell biology and genetics. The centre also works on large-scale population studies, gene therapy and research harnessing the power of the immune system to help treat cancer, and is home to to one of one of the largest clinical trials units in the UK (you can follow them @CRCTU). Birmingham also hosts the UK’s largest ‘nuclear magnetic resonance’ facility. Using this technology, researchers can view the building blocks of cells to understand the root causes of cancer and monitor the effects of drug treatments.
Science cakes come in all shapes and sizes and Birmingham was no exception. There were two entries that aimed to demonstrate why tumours are so dependent on blood supply and what would happen if we could starve them.
Every cell in our body requires oxygen and nutrients to survive. Blood vessels and capillaries are designed to get close enough to all our cells to allow gases and molecules to travel between them – we call this process ‘diffusion‘. When a tumour starts to grow it must develop its own blood supply otherwise the cells in the middle of the tumour would be too far away from the blood vessels to get nutrients and oxygen. Cancer cells encourage the body to form new blood vessels that travel through the tumour and feed it as it grows – this is called ‘angiogenesis’ (for more information you can read another of my blog posts).
Scientists have been trying to understand how tumour cells make new blood vessels in the hope that if we can stop it happening we can starve tumours and kill them. There are now a number cancer treating drugs that aim block blood vessel formation (anti angiogenics) and scientists are continuing to find new and better ways to starve tumours without harming normal healthy cells.
In the top cake we can see the difference between an untreated tumour and one that has been treated with an anti angiogenic that has made the cancer cells die and the tumour shrink. The bottom cake shows us how tumours form lots of blood vessels that go through the mass of cancer cells delivering fresh, oxygen and nutrient rich blood (red) and leaving with low oxygen and nutrient blood (blue).
The next cake shows the histone proteins that help to package DNA in the cell. Histone proteins were covered in Oxford’s Great Science Cake Off Explained but this cake just looked too tasty to not include. Here we can see the black DNA strand is wrapped around eight histone proteins. Each histone has a body and a tail and researchers in Birmingham, like those in Oxford, are interested in understanding how changes on the tails of these proteins can affect how the DNA is read.
This very detailed cake – which wouldn’t look out of place in a text book – shows the modifications that happen on each of the histone tails the yellow M’s are positions where the tail can become methylated, green A’s show adenylylations and the brown U is a ubiquitination. All these modifications change how the histone protein functions and are important for regulating gene expression. By understanding this histone code of modifications, researchers at Birmingham are trying to reprogramme gene expression in the fight against leukaemia.
The next pair of cakes are by immune fighting duo Ben and Carrie Willcox. These cakes show us how we can teach our immune system to fight cancer cells. Immune cells identify and destroy foreign and invading organisms in our bodies but do not normally fight cancer cells as these cells are made by our own bodies. In fact when our immune system targets our own cells it can cause autoimmune disease.
Scientists are trying to understand how the immune system work in more detail and have discovered that the immune system could attack cancer if it knew what to look for. They have also discovered that cancer cells try to turn off the immune system to avoid being detected.
Researchers in Birmingham are working on ways to teach the immune system to target cancer cells without harming normal, health cells. In the first of these tasty looking immune cakes we can see the blue immune cells honing in on the red tumour which is the aim of Birmingham’s Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre (CIIC) (you can follow their progress on twitter @CIIC_UoB).
The second cake shows more detail on how scientists can teach immune cells – like this pink cytotoxic lymphocyte, which is a specialised cell that detects and kills other cells expressing foreign or abnormal proteins – to target a cancer cell (white). All cells have proteins that can be seen on the outside of their membrane (jelly babies) and immune cells use these proteins to identify self from foreign intruders, which express different proteins on their surface. When a cell becomes cancerous the proteins that are on the outside of the cell change and scientists are working out how to teach immune cells to recognise these changes. Once the pink lymphocyte has identified a cancer cell it can grab hold and release toxins that kill the cell.
Finally from Birmingham we look at an edible version of a technique for getting information into a cell. Scientists have discovered that by using really small gold particles, called gold nanoparticles, they can get oligonuclotides – the building blocks of DNA – into a cell. We covered the 4 building blocks of DNA – the A,C, G and Ts – in the Manchester round which can be seen here as the colourful blocks attached to the gold cake particle.
The gold particle carries its cargo across the cell membrane and, once in the cell, these oligonuclotides can change how genes are regulated or even detect sequences of DNA or proteins in the cell. Whilst scientists can get information into a cell by other means, the gold particles are non toxic and can easily move through the cell membrane without having to make holes in the membrane to get molecules through.
Gold particles have also been used to detect cancer, to help with imaging and – when made radioactive – to kill cancer cells. Only time will tell how much this technology will help in the fight against cancer.
That’s all we have time for from Birmingham but this blog will continue as we look at the entries from CRUK centres in Glasgow, London, East Scotland, Cardiff, and Southampton delving further into the weird and wonderful world of cancer biology. Can’t wait for the next post? You can view all the cakes in the 2013 Great Science Cake Off on Pinterest.
@Beckieport is a CRUK funded PhD student in the final stages of her doctorate studying how viruses cause cancer. If you want to know more about the research and events happening at the CRUK centre in Birmingham you can follow Debbie (the research engagement manager) on twitter, @CRUKBirmingham, or find out more about their world class research on the centre website. As always comments and suggestions on this blog are encouraged. This is a personal blog and is not endorsed by CRUK – however I hope you like it anyway.