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Cancer biology

Understanding cancer, and the complex biological systems that underlie its development, is essential if we are to identify new ways of treating the disease. At The Institute of Cancer Research, London, we take a close-up look at the fundamental mechanisms at work within cells, while also employing complex data analysis and ‘systems biology’ approaches to gain an overview of the intricate webs of communication at play.

Breast cancer cells (green) invading through a layer of fibroblasts (red). (Luke Henry / the ICR, 2009)

Our scientists have a proven track record in revealing the biology of cancer. We made the groundbreaking discovery of how the RAS gene – one of the most commonly activated genes in cancer – causes cells to turn malignant.

We helped identify and understand the BRAF oncogene, which is now an important drug target in malignant melanoma and other cancers.

And ICR science underpinned the development of the PARP inhibitor olaparib, which exploits a weakness in DNA repair in cells with BRCA gene mutations.

Now, guided by our research strategy, our teams continue to lead the way in researching aspects of biology implicated in the origin, growth and spread of cancer.

We have particular expertise in the mechanisms cells use to preserve the integrity of the genome. These systems ensure that healthy cells can only proceed to division if they have first faithfully replicated their DNA.

Our goal is to understand how these mechanisms go wrong in cancer, and ultimately how we can design new treatments that exploit the instability of the genome in cancer cells.

Our cancer biologists also have access to the complete range of modern facilities and techniques they need to make discoveries – including state-of-the-art microscopy, proteomics, metabolomics, advanced structural biology technologies and computational approaches.

And, crucially, fundamental findings from the ICR’s cancer biology labs feed into our world-leading programme of drug discovery, helping to pave the way for the next breakthroughs in cancer therapeutics.