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In praise of exploration

Unless you spent the last few weeks living in a cave, you’ll know that almost every science news headline featured Pluto and NASA’s New Horizons mission.  Here Dr Helen Rippon, our Head of Resarch, writes in admiration of the pioneering spirit that drives some scientists to survey the furthest reaches of our solar system, and others to delve into the mysteries – and challenges - of human biology.

You may remember Pluto last hitting the headlines in 2006 after it was removed, somewhat controversially, from the planetary line up of our solar system.  Maybe it is fortunate that the New Horizons space probe had departed six months earlier.  Who knows what political will would have been forthcoming to support a costly mission to a mere dwarf planet?  It was clear, of course, that Pluto could be nothing more than a crater-pocked, icy rock floating amongst the frozen debris of the Kuiper Belt.  Beyond the warmth of the sun and with no invigorating pull of tidal forces to deform the surface, there could be very little to see on this inert, long-dead world.

But goodness, this month we discovered how wrong that assumption was.  Pluto has mountain ranges as big as Earth’s and smooth, resurfaced plains with not a crater in sight. The terrain is richly varied and dynamic, moulded somehow by ongoing geological activity that scientists cannot explain - yet.  There must be an awful lot of frantic theorising happening amongst planetary scientists at the moment.  And that kind of thing tends to make scientists very happy indeed.

It may be a wholly different kind of science, but it’s the same spirit of exploration, challenge and discovery that Worldwide Cancer Research has always striven to support in the fight against cancer.

For example, Dr Vincenzo Costanzo at the IFOM institute in Milan was awarded a grant in 2012 to investigate a curious phenomenon: When cancer cells copy their DNA ahead of dividing they always start from many more places than normal cells do.  This could be just another abnormal thing to add to the list of the many abnormal things that cancer cells do, but on the other hand it could be crucial and maybe we could exploit it. Until somebody looks, we just don’t know.

Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke at the Barts Cancer Institute in London is using her Worldwide Cancer Research grant to challenge a long-held assumption in cancer research.  For tumours to grow they need a blood supply to deliver nutrients and oxygen, so there has always been good reason to believe that destroying tumour blood vessels would be a great way of treating cancer.  The problem is that now we have some of those blood vessel-blocking drugs they don’t work nearly as well as expected.  Professor Hodivala-Dilke is turning this assumption on its head, investigating whether a better way of treating cancer might be to encourage the growth of more blood vessels into the tumour instead so that a higher dose of other tumour-killing drugs can be delivered inside it.  There’s still a way to go but her results so far are encouraging, as we discussed here.

And Dr Angelo De Milito from the Karolinska Institute, Sweden used his funding to ask a question hiding in plain sight about how we ought to be screening for new cancer drugs.  He recognised that most tumours are low in oxygen and acidic, but drug screens are often conducted in cancer cells growing happily with normal oxygen and pH levels in the laboratory.  He has already shown that an acidic tumour environment can change the response to drugs, as we described in an earlier blog post, and we know there are more findings to come.

Exploratory research seeks to discover, to investigate the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and to challenge the assumptions that can be made without properly looking.  It is inherently a risky business with no certain outcomes.  But like NASA’s space programme, we know that practical applications will come in time, and that this knowledge will one day help improve the lives of people living with cancer.  Even if it is not in the in the way we might have first imagined.

So we will continue to support the innovators and the pioneers in cancer research until we no longer need to.  Great science is driven by curiosity, imagination and risk - and we are all the richer for it.

Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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