Dr Chris Bakal studies the biological switches that cause cells to change shape, become cancerous and spread around the body. By understanding how these switches work, scientists may one day find a way to control them through drugs or other therapies. He is Leader of the Dynamical Cell Systems Team within the Division of Cancer Biology at the The Institute of Cancer Research, London.
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Cells are able to assume a wide variety of complex shapes in order to carry out different roles and Dr Bakal’s team examines the genetic and biochemical mechanisms that underpin these shape changes. Their research covers how both environmental and genetic variation affects cell shape. Ultimately, he aims to understand how normal and cancerous cells can adopt different shapes and why metastatic cancer develops in some people but not others.
“I am fascinated by the fact that our cells have the ability to take so many different shapes,” Dr Bakal says. “How is it that one cell can become a thin-branched neuron that is many feet long, whereas others become flat, large skin cells? Understanding the ability of cells to assume different shapes is key to understanding cancer, since metastatic cells have to change their shape in order to move to different parts of the body.”
Dr Bakal received his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at the University of British Columbia and his PhD in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto and the Ontario Cancer Institute. He joined Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as a postdoctoral fellow in 2004. In 2006, he also became an affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as an affiliate of the Broad Institute.
While at Harvard Medical School, Dr Bakal developed his interest in the communication networks between cells that control their migration around the body and are therefore involved in cancer spread. He also devised an automated computer programme used to recognise the shape of cells and infer the corresponding genetic alterations that have occurred in the cell. The new technology can be used to predict if a cell is cancerous or non-cancerous, a previously time-consuming job performed by human pathologists.
In 2009, Dr Bakal started his own research team at the ICR on a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship. His team is part of the integrative network biology initiative, which is a collaborative research effort between scientists of different disciplines to study the biological processes involved in cancer metastasis.
“The ICR was the only place in the world where I could work in an integrative fashion to develop new experimental and computational technologies to study signalling networks regulating cell shape,” Dr Bakal says.
“I hope that we can use many of the technologies that I have developed to gain a holistic and systems-level understanding into how cancer cells metastasise. If we can do this it will open the door for effective personalised treatment and, importantly, allow us to make full use of all the sequencing information that is available.”
Dr Bakal has received several awards including the Dorsett L. Spurgeon Award in 2007 as the top postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. In 2009, he received an Outstanding Research Award from Nature Biotechnology. While on a Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society Fellowship from 2005 to 2009, he was twice honoured by the society’s volunteers for his research efforts.
Outside work, Dr Bakal was a former world-ranked downhill ski racer who specialised in the super-giant slalom event. He is also a former track and field athlete who finished in the top eight three times at the Canadian National Championships 1500m event and has also run a mile in 4 minutes and 3 seconds.
In 2016, he was awarded the title of Reader at the ICR.