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What do polar bears, cancer research and Cheryl Cole have in common?

Sadly, it isn’t that Simon Cowell has decided to donate all profits from the next series of X Factor to WWF and Cancer Research UK – it’s the #nomakeup selfie. Whilst the debate rages over the relevance of a woman’s face without makeup (or a man’s face with makeup) to cancer awareness, the fact remains that the #nomakeup selfie campaign has raised a huge sum of money for valuable research into the causes of cancer.  Dr. Gemma Swiers explains how scientists at the WIMM are helping the fight against this deadly disease.

From Prince Harry’s girlfriend to your best friend, last month the #nomakeup selfie took the social media world by storm. In a single week, the campaign raised over £8 million for Cancer Research UK (1) – publicised as enough cash to fund 10 new clinical trials. Some of this money will also go towards funding basic research into the underlying causes of cancer, right down to the level of the cell. This information is vital to developing new, personalised, targeted therapies – and that’s where researchers at the WIMM come in.

Image credit: Kevin Clark (2014)

Image credit: Kevin Clark (2014)

The goal of the Oncology Department at the WIMM is to facilitate the link between research and the clinic, aiming to develop new strategies to combat cancer. Part funded by charities including Cancer Research UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, this research is likely to benefit from the money raised by #nomakeup selfie.

Understanding how tumour cells are able to grow and develop their own vasculature (to “feed” the tumour) is a focus of Adrian Harris’ research groupAhmed Ahmed’s group are trying to identify the mechanisms that some tumours use to develop drug resistance and work carried out in Val Macaulay’s lab focuses on a small family of proteins known as IGFs and their role in prostrate cancer (see blog post here).

Research in the WIMM is a two-way street; not only do we aim to bring basic research questions to the clinic, but with almost a third of our researchers clinically qualified and a team of group leaders that are practicing clinicians, we are uniquely placed to bring clinical questions back to the lab bench.

Within the Molecular Haematology Unit, several research groups also have strong ties to cancer research. Understanding how normal blood cells are made is the focus for several groups including Claus Nerlov (see blog post here) and Marella de Bruijn. By learning how blood cells are made normally, researchers are able to apply this knowledge to begin to understand how leukaemia and other blood disorders initiate and propagate. Paresh Vyas and Adam Mead (both active clinicians) lead groups that are involved in characterising the cells that go wrong at the start of leukaemia and Terry Rabbitts’ lab are trying to develop new technologies and methods to study and understand cancer.

Even the Human Immunology Unit has a focus on cancer research. Work in Enzo Cerundolo’s lab focuses on understanding how the body is able to respond to melanoma (skin cancer) tumours.  By studying the immune responses generated in our body in response to tumours we will be able to develop better strategies against cancer, and in particular to develop clinical trials to treat various cancers.

The concept of ‘molecular medicine’ upon which the WIMM is established highlights the fundamental root of cancer research; understanding the intricate mechanisms at the level of each individual cell that causes tumours to grow. This brief summary of the cancer-related research at the WIMM is just the tip of a very large iceberg. This is our own #nomakeup selfie, by scientists at the institute who come to work every day to help the fight against this disease. Check out the Research pages to find out more about the exciting research ongoing in the WIMM!

* Donations were made to polar bears when ‘bear’ and not ‘beat’ was texted to 70099!

1. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/mar/25/no-makeup-selfies-cancer-charity

Post edited by Bryony Graham.

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