Close up of researcher working with samples in a lab

Research projects

Suffocating tumours: can we stop cancer from growing in low oxygen environments?

Dr Niall Kenneth
Project period
Mar 2024 - Feb 2027
Research Institute
University of Liverpool
Cancer types
Lung cancer
Award amount

Project aim

Dr Niall Kenneth and his team are investigating if they can ‘suffocate’ lung cancers without harming the healthy cells around them.

Hope for the future

Lung cancer caused 1.8 million deaths worldwide in 2022; the single largest number of deaths for any cancer. Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer that develops in the outer lining of the body’s organs, typically the lungs, and is associated with asbestos exposure. Sadly, mesothelioma is incurable but some people can survive many years after diagnosis.

Dr Niall Kenneth and his team are investigating how cancer cells can survive in environments with too little oxygen for normal cells  They are identifying strategies to ‘suffocate’ cancer cells in low oxygen environments to stop them from growing. This may provide a therapeutic opportunity to specifically target tumour cells without affecting healthy tissue, leading to kinder and groundbreaking treatments for lung cancer and mesothelioma.


Dr Niall Kenneth and his team in lab coats in their lab, with Worldwide Cancer Research lanywards

Meet the scientist

Dr Kenneth is originally from Dundee in Scotland, and now lives on the Wirral with his wife, 2 kids, 1 dog, 2 cats and a bearded dragon! Outside the lab he enjoys long walks on the surrounding beaches and playing golf. The primary motivation for his research career was inspired by losing his mum, Nancy Kenneth, to small cell lung cancer when he was 20 years old. Going through that journey with his mum, dad and brothers at such a formative time in his life convinced him to pursue a career in cancer research. He has a passion to be part of a solution to help other families going through the same painful journey.

The science

Cells need oxygen to survive, which they receive through blood vessels. As lung cancers and mesothelioma grow, they outgrow the blood supply leaving parts of the tumour with lower oxygen supplies than surrounding tissue. If there is not enough oxygen for cells, they will die. This state of low oxygen is called hypoxia. In healthy cells, prolonged periods of hypoxia leads to cell death. Cancer cells, however, can adapt to survive in hypoxia and use this to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels in their local area. This allows the cancer to survive and grow further.

The team have found a potential key players in this process, a group of enzymes called deubiquitinases (or DUBs), which allow cancer cells to survive in hypoxic environments. They found that certain DUBs are ‘switched on’ in cancer cells during hypoxia to help them survive but are ‘switched off’ in surrounding healthy cells. They hope to ‘switch off’ DUBs in cancer cells which could ‘suffocate’ the cancer without affecting the surrounding healthy tissue.

The team are using a unique model to study hypoxia in tumours using fertilised hen’s eggs, as an alternative to mice. They will use new classes of drugs to ‘switch off’ DUBs and look at the effects on tumour growth and aggressiveness. Dr Kenneth explains: “The aim of this work is to develop new strategies to target hypoxic lung cancers and mesotheliomas which are generally more aggressive and harder to treat using existing therapies.

Dr Niall Kenneth at his lab Dr Niall Kenneth
As someone who has lost close family to cancer, I am proud and excited to work together with Worldwide Cancer Research to fight these diseases.

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