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Student’s Award for Study into Cancer Drug Target


Thursday 26 November 2009


A PhD student at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) has won an Europe-wide competition for her investigation into a promising anti-cancer drug target.


Nicole Simonavicius was awarded first prize in the European research abstract competition run by MedImmune, the global biologics unit of pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.


Ms Simonavicius joined the ICR in 2006 and is in her final year of a PhD studentship in Professor Clare Isacke’s Molecular Cell Biology Team in the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Centre.


She is studying a receptor involved in angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing blood vessels. Molecules involved in angiogenesis are considered attractive drug targets because tumours rely on new blood vessels for growth.


Ms Simonavicius focused on a cell marker called endosialin because it is present on growing, but not normal, blood vessels. The blood vessels in many types of cancer are known to produce endosialin at high levels, but scientists do not know its purpose.


In her PhD project, Ms Simonavicius confirmed that endosialin was present on breast cancer and glioma blood vessels but not normal blood vessels. Most importantly, she demonstrated that endosialin is found on a cell type found on the outside layer of blood vessels called a pericyte, and not as previously believed on the endothelium (a thin layer of cells that lines the interior surface of blood vessels).


In her current research, Ms Simonavicius is considering the reason why pericytes produce endosialin. She is using a variety of different scientific techniques and models to investigate whether targeting endosialin could prevent tumours forming blood vessels and effectively starve the tumour.


“Our results indicate that endosialin is crucial for blood vessels to begin changing shape, and confirm that it is a promising drug target,” Ms Simonavicius says. “By increasing scientists’ understanding of the mechanism of angiogenesis, we hope to have brought the development of new anti-cancer drugs a significant step closer.”


Ms Simonavicius, who plans to continue studying angiogenesis once she has completed her PhD, was named on a shortlist of 10 students and post-doctoral fellows after submitting a summary of her research. She was selected to win the £2,000 first prize after presenting her work to a panel of expert judges including Professor Gillian Murphy from Cambridge University’s Oncology Department and Professor Volker Schirrmacher, retired Head of the Cellular Immunology Division at The German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg.


“Winning this competition is a great honour. Gaining such positive feedback from leading experts has confirmed my commitment to scientific research. It’s also a great motivator as I’m going into my final year of study,” Ms Simonavicius says.



Media Contact: Science Press Officer Jane Bunce or 0207 153 5106 or after hours 077217 47900


The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)

  • The ICR is Europe’s leading cancer research centre
  • The ICR has been ranked the UK’s top academic research centre, based on the results of the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Assessment Exercise
  • The ICR works closely with partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to ensure patients immediately benefit from new research. Together the two organisations form the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe
  • The ICR has charitable status and relies on voluntary income, spending 95 pence in every pound of total income directly on research
  • As a college of the University of London, the ICR also provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction
  • Over its 100-year history, the ICR’s achievements include identifying the potential link between smoking and lung cancer which was subsequently confirmed, discovering that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer and isolating more cancer-related genes than any other organisation in the world

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