Scheme: Royal Society Research Professorship
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Dates: Jun 2015-May 2020
Summary: Our work comprises three central themes: understanding the biology of small RNAs, particularly in germ cells, understanding the molecular basis of cancer, and developing technologies that can propel science forward.
Small RNAs play roles in almost every aspect of biology. During the development of sperm and eggs in animals, piRNAs - a class of small RNA that we discovered about a decade ago - guard the integrity of germ cell genomes and consequently preserve the genetic information that is passed between generations. Our genomes are under constant threat by parasitic mobile genetic elements called transposons. piRNAs recognize these elements and prevent them from moving to new locations in the genome where they could potentially cause deleterious mutations. My laboratory is studying how piRNAs carry out these functions in mammals and in models such as fruit flies.
My laboratory also studies critical questions in cancer biology, mainly focusing on breast cancer. We are interested in the mechanisms that promote the transition from early, non-invasive disease to life threatening cancers. We also study drivers of metastasis and the progression to lethal disease at secondary sites. In this regard, we have developed a model of breast tumor heterogeneity and shown that breast cancers are formed of different cell types that carry individual capabilites - some can make the primary tumor while others can enter the blood and a subset of those seed metastases. By studying the differences between these populations, we have found that a process by which tumor cells make their own blood vessels (vascular mimicry) is a driver of metastasis in breast cancer. We have also recently linked and enzyme that makes a particular amino acid - a building block of proteins - is critical to establishment of metastases form cells that are already in the blood. This is leading us to try to develop compounds for prevention of metastatic disease