University of Birmingham scientist wins £1.4m to unlock mystery of how cancer 'steals the keys' to healthy growth

A scientist at the University of Birmingham has received a £1.4 million award from Cancer Research UK to carry out pioneering research that may discover how cancer ‘steals the keys’ from the body’s locksmiths, disrupting healthy cell growth and function. 

Mat Coleman and team

Dr Mathew Coleman, of the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences at the University of Birmingham, is set to receive £1.4m over six years from Cancer Research UK to find out more about three specific proteins that are thought to have a role in cancer.

Although this research focuses on gastrointestinal cancer, the findings will likely be applicable to a variety of other tumour types. 

The proteins in our body come in all shapes and sizes and play a range of roles, including controlling energy production, cell growth and cell function. But if these proteins become faulty, it can affect how they work, causing them – and cells – to go out of control. 

Dr Coleman explained: “The proteins in our cells all have different roles. We are interested in three particular proteins, which are all enzymes that act as ‘locksmiths’ for other proteins. 

“Usually, these enzymes, called ‘oxygenases’, work by attaching an oxygen molecule to specific parts of other proteins, which generally turns them on. This is a bit like a locksmith putting a key in a lock – once the door is opened, it ‘unlocks’ processes in a cell that ensure it develops normally and that everything is properly controlled. 

“We have found that these enzyme ‘locksmiths’ become faulty in cancer, meaning they’re unable to attach oxygen molecules to other proteins properly. This means the door remains shut, and certain processes are ‘locked out’. We think that this can lead to abnormal cell growth and function, which can lead to cancer. It’s as if cancer has stolen the keys from these locksmiths. 

“What is amazing is that such a small thing – not being able to place a ‘key’ in a ‘lock’ – has the potential to have a domino effect that disrupts cell growth and function, causing cells to go awry and turn cancerous.” 

 “What is amazing is that such a small thing has the potential to have a domino effect”

Dr Coleman’s group will study both human tissue and cells donated by cancer patients who have generously given permission for their tumour samples to be used in research. 

The hope is that by understanding how these oxygenases become faulty, and what goes wrong in cancer cells because they’re not working properly, Dr Coleman and his team may be able to find out how to regain control of wayward processes, leading to new targeted treatments for cancer patients. 

Dr Coleman added: “If we can find out more about how oxygenases become faulty and the consequences of this in cancer cells, we may be able to identify and develop new drugs that target the cellular processes they control. Or, we may be able to develop drugs that act as a ‘skeleton key’ that does their job for them. 

“We’re incredibly grateful to the patients who donate their tumour samples to research; their contribution is making a real impact in allowing researchers like me to understand cancer. We’re also extremely thankful to the people who support Cancer Research UK because without them, our work would not be possible.”

Every week, around 600 people are diagnosed with cancer in the West Midlands region. Cancer Research UK aims to raise money to accelerate ground-breaking research to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer and help more people survive the disease. 

Together with its partners, scientists, doctors, nurses and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

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