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Meet our Worldwide Wonder - Professor Paul Coffer

9th April 2020

Paul Coffer is Professor of Cell Biology at University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMC) in the Netherlands. He is leading a project funded by Worldwide Cancer Research that looks at the role of our immune system in colon cancer. Paul was a member of our Scientific Advisory Committee and has now joined our Board of Trustees.

Tell us about your project

We’re trying to understand how our immune system interacts with colon tumours.

Cells divide all the time in our body and sometimes they make errors when they divide. Our cells have ways to repair these errors so normally it’s not a problem. But things can go wrong and mutations can occur in cells that make them turn into cancer cells. Fortunately, we have a fantastic immune system that can seek out these cells and destroy them. This happens all the time in our body and means that most of the time we don’t develop cancer.

Unfortunately, some of these cancer cells are clever and can trick our immune system. The cancer cells can convert some of our immune cells and use them to form a barrier around the tumour. This provides protection against attack from other cells of our immune system.

So we are trying to understand a couple of things about this. How can cancer cells do this? How can a cancer cell convert a normal immune cell into one that protects cancer? And can we target these converted immune cells with drugs?

You are making use of organoids in your research. What are organoids?

We work with tumour organoids or mini-tumours. The name can be a bit confusing because tumours aren’t organs. But the methods for growing them came from growing miniature versions of organs in the lab. Tumour organoids are a fantastic new tool for science. It was actually colleagues of mine at UMC who made most of the early discoveries that developed the technique. (Hans Clevers, thanks to funding from us!)

Tumour organoids are a little piece of tumour that we can grow in the lab. It might surprise you to know that tumours from a patient are actually hard to grow in the lab. Cancer cells grow and divide a lot, but as soon as you take them out of the body and put them in the lab, they don’t like it. What’s fantastic about tumour organoids is that we can take cancer cells from a patient and grow them in the lab in a way that mimics the tumour.

How does this benefit cancer research?

The cancer cells that we grow into tumour organoids form little balls, which you can imagine as being a little bit like a mini-tumour. These mini-tumours can be grown from any patient’s cancer cells. So we can generate huge biobanks or libraries of different tumours for research.

Tumour organoids also allow us to experiment in the lab by throwing other cells into the mix. So for our project we can take immune cells and throw them into the mix with the mini-tumours. Then we can start to study the interaction between the immune system and the tumour. This hasn’t been possible to do in a lab situation before.

How important is it to keep funding discovery research?

Worldwide Cancer Research is unique for funding this type of innovative discovery research. It’s important to fund innovation because it provides the ideas for new therapies in the long term. Simply put, if we don’t pursue these ideas, we won’t get new therapies. A recent study showed that the top drugs that have had the most impact in medicine, didn’t come out of people trying to cure a disease. They all started by people working on fundamental mechanisms of biology. It was out of these discoveries that new therapies appeared. So it’s critical to be able to do this kind of discovery research now if we want to develop innovative therapies in the future.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

I love to travel and I love photography. If I can combine those two things that’s the perfect experience for me to wind down.

Where’s the best place you’ve visited?

I’d love to go back to the Hawaiian islands. Who wouldn’t want to be on a sunken volcano with a beach, clear water and the possibility of going diving? A fantastic place

You’re next on at the Karaoke bar. What’s your song?

I can promise you if you ever asked me to get on stage at a karaoke bar, I would not get on stage, it would be a living nightmare. If I was on my own and no one else was around...that’s a difficult question, but considering that I cannot sing, I’d have to rap something!