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Steve Pollard – keeping brain cancer in check

18 April 2019

Professor Steve Pollard was recently interviewed by The Times about his research and how it is helping to develop new treatments to keep brain cancer in check.

As Group Leader and Professor of Stem Cell and Cancer Biology at CRM, Professor Steve Pollard’s CRUK funded research uses molecular and cellular biology to explore why brain tumour stem cells make the decision to make more copies of themselves (self-renewal) and what can be done to control this. He hopes that this will ultimately lead to the development of new drugs and therapies for brain cancer patients.

The Times article recalls his early research when, as a young chemistry student on an internship in Memphis, Tennessee, Steve was primarily focussed on exploring and understanding how the brain forms in an embryo in the womb. It describes the emotion he felt every morning as he sat on a bus alongside child cancer patients on their way to the hospital and his own ‘eureka moment’ when he realised that his own work could be applied to cancer. By studying the way brain cells develop in the womb, he would be able to better understand how brain tumours grow.

In brain tumours the molecular apparatus that controls the ability of the cancer cells to divide is similar to that used by neural stem cells. Therefore, a full understanding of the molecular and cellular events that control neural stem cell fate may reveal new therapeutic strategies to treat this devastating disease.

Following the article, Professor Pollard said,

“In particular we are interested in the mechanisms that control the balance between [stem cell] self-renewal (making more copies of themselves) and differentiation (becoming specialised mature cells that no longer divide). We study the molecular switches that control genes important for these transitions. We know that those genes used during early embryonic brain development are somehow highjacked by the brain tumour cells. We now need to find ways to disrupt this activity, as this could lead to improved therapeutics.”

Professor Steve Pollard

A further breakthrough came 15 years ago when Professor Pollard was able to grow fresh human cultures from tumours in the lab, opening up huge opportunities for testing drugs and treatments.

In The Times interview, Steve Pollard describes how families affected by cancer are often brought to tears while touring his CRM laboratory when they are able to view cancerous cells for the first time down a microscope, seeing how they divide and multiply to produce such damaging cancerous tissue.

Neural stem cells expanding in culture in the laboratory

Professor Steve Pollard said (about above image),

“These are neural stem cells expanding in culture in the laboratory. The white cell is a rounded up cells just about to divide. You can see the chromosomes condensed and about to be partitioned to become the two new cells that arise from division.”

The article ends with a positive note that, although cautious about giving cancer patients unrealistic hope, Professor Pollard is optimistic about the development of new treatments to keep brain cancer in check and offer much better life expectancy following a diagnosis.

Read The Times article in full

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Ellie Roger
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