HomeMade’s science trip

In a leafy enclosure near Farringdon, set within the restored beauty of sixteenth-century school buildings and teeming gardens, we got the chance to see fantastic scientific progress being made.

Over 400 scientists, technicians and assistants work at the Barts Cancer Centre, part of Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry. Thanks in large part to funding provided by Cancer Research UK, these men and women work tirelessly to decode, better understand and develop treatments for various types of cancer. We had the privilege and pleasure to tour the facility and meet some of the scientists working to reduce cancer deaths.

The research undertaken here is both ambitious and successful.  After a brief introduction from the research engagement manager, we met the formidable Professor Christopher Heeschen, whose pioneering research into cancer stem cells aims to improve long-term outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer. As many know, historically this has been a particularly tough cancer to fight. For the last four decades the 10-year survival rate has remained at only 1%. What’s more, while it is the 10th most common cause of cancer, it is in fact the 5th most common cause of cancer death. Professor Heeschen and his team’s novel approaches to research are giving hope that we could finally see an improvement in the prognoses of patients.

The research facility itself is a well-secured labyrinth. The sensitivity of the material and cost of much of the equipment mean access is highly restricted. We were led up to the third floor of the John Vane Cancer Centre and asked to don white lab-coats before entering the research labs. What immediately becomes apparent is the importance of the work happening in labs like this across the world.

In just 20 years the survival rate for cancer has almost doubled. This is entirely due to lab-coat wearing super-heroes plugging away in a relentless, repetitive search for tiny changes or insights. Our tour helped us see the value of new technology, funding and scientific curiosity.

We started with a chat about the importance of being able to find specific proteins. They help to first diagnose cancer types, and latterly act as a target for treatments to kill the cancer.

In order to take cancer tissue samples and find which proteins are present, we were given the chance to learn a little about combs, wells, pipetting and electrophoresis. Each £10 gel enables Andy, the lab manager, to decode up to 10 samples. The (un)steady hand of many a HomeMader made heavy work of this task. He was hugely polite while pointing out that our laboured progress would make a week’s research take more than a month…

We then met Tony, surrounded by all manner of scientific machinery. In honour of our visit each large piece of apparatus proudly displayed a price tag, as both a grateful nod to its funders and acknowledgment of how important the funding is. It’s certainly not cheap work. One £50,000 machine we saw analysed samples in search of particular protein and genetic markers. We had seen how much work went into 10 samples, but this beast could test up to 96 samples in a single run. All of a sudden a week’s work could be completed in less than a day. However with each 96-sample tray costing £75, a day’s research soon adds up.

Around the corner, David, a post-doctoral researcher, showed us the next step in the complex process. Incubators that housed cancer samples “in vitro”. Small flasks perfectly mimic the growth conditions inside a human body and promote cell propagation. As time passes and the cells divide, samples are continually extracted for analysis in other parts of the lab. This raw material, real human cancer cells, is essential to everyone’s research. By experimenting to see the effect of low oxygen, acidity and other environmental factors, David hopes to understand what triggers cancer cells to become mobile. When they evolve to leave the initial cancer mass, it creates metastatic cancer which is far harder to treat. By researching the triggers, he hopes to be able to slow or stop this migration response and help restrict the cancer to an initial location.

The accumulated specialist knowledge in this single laboratory alone is vast, and its output is invaluable if we’re ever to beat pancreatic cancer. We’d like to say a huge thank you to Cancer Research UK and the team at the Barts Cancer Centre for showing us round. We’ve been inspired to push ourselves harder, raise more and keep doing our bit to put an end to cancer-related deaths.