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Investigating the causes of Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcomas are a group of highly malignant tumours that account for over half of the soft tissue sarcomas in children. Sadly, current therapies, consisting of surgery combined with chemotherapy, are not sufficient in the most aggressive forms of the tumours, meaning better treatments are needed.

Rhabdomyosarcomas originate from muscle stem cells.  Muscle stem cells are special cells that can change into mature muscle cells through a process called differentiation. However, in Rhabdomyosarcomas something goes wrong, allowing the cells to grow out of control and escape the differentiation program. Dr Palacios is using her Worldwide Cancer Research grant to investigate the role of a protein called p38 in the development of rhabdomyosarcoma. In normal muscle cells p38 must be switched on in order to form muscle. However, in some rhabdomyosarcomas the protein is not turned on, and this is linked to uncontrolled cell division and tumour formation. Thanks to support from Worldwide Cancer Research, Dr Palacios will investigate what happens if she forces p38 to be turned on in rhabdomyosarcoma cells. In particular she will look at how it alters the genes in the cancer cells in order to stop them from dividing and allowing their differentiation into healthy muscle cells.

Dr Palacios will start by using rhabdomyosarcoma cells grown in the laboratory before confirming her findings using samples taken from children with the disease. She hopes her research will lead to a new way of grouping these tumours based on the types of treatments that work best.  She also hopes the findings could help with the design of new treatments for rhabdomyosarcoma.