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Hunt for fundamental insight into and treatment for cancer

To develop good cancer treatments, we need to know much more about how malignant tumour cells develop. Professor Ewa Snaar-Jagalska looks at not just the effect of medication on isolated cells but also the behaviour of cancer cells in their tissue environment. Inaugural lecture on 11 December.

Testing medication on cancer cell alone is not enough

Cancer is a genetic disease that arises in a cell. We can grow cancer cells in the lab and carry out many tests on them. These tests are relatively simple, verifiable and cheap. Researchers add new drugs to culture vessels in which cancer cells are growing. They then study whether the cancer cells stop growing and die. But cancer develops in a body and is surrounded by other types of cell and blood vessels. This means that further research is almost always needed on test animals before clinical research can begin. Mice are often injected with human cancer cells and used as an animal model. Mouse tests are long and expensive, however.

Coloured cells

Ewa Snaar-Jagalska uses zebrafish larvae as an innovative model for cancer research. These are a suitable model for human cancer because of the similarities in both tumour structure and gene activity. As zebrafish larvae are transparent at a young age, their processes can be viewed live. Snaar-Jagalska and her collegues therefore use a method that involves dyeing a certain type of cell. They can see in detail how metastases develop and how cells in the immune system react to the tumour cells. They thus gain fundamental knowledge about cancer development in a tissue environment. They can also measure live the effect of potential treatment methods that use chemical substances or genetic treatments on cancer and healthy cells over a period of a few days.

Interaction between tumour and the immune system

The research has already produced significant results, says Snaar-Jagalska. ‘Together with our partners LACDR, Galapagos and LUMC, we have found a new gene that is involved in the development of prostate cancer. We have also found clues for further research into the interaction between tumour cells and the human immune system. This is important because sometimes the immune system helps fight cancer, but sometimes actually helps it grow.’

For now, Snaar-Jagalska wants to focus on identifying the most aggressive cancer cells and their characteristics. She also wants to study in more depth the interaction between the immune system and cancer cells. ‘Too much to achieve in one career really.’

(Text: Jan Joost Aten)