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New research aims to find out why cancer spreads


Dr Karthic Swaminathan

A University of Bradford academic has secured £125,000 from the Academy of Medical Sciences to conduct ground-breaking cancer research.

Dr Karthic Swaminathan, a former researcher at Cancer Research UK who now lectures in Centre for Skin Sciences, is the recipient of an Academy of Medical Sciences award, awarded as part of its national £6.6m funding scheme to support newly independent biomedical scientists to launch their research careers.

The money will pay for equipment, lab space and time to better understand the metastasis of malignant melanomas. Part of Dr Swaminathan’s research will involve ‘tagging’ cancer cells and watching them as they spread, with a view to developing new treatments.

Dr Swaminathan said: “I am thrilled to have received the award, because it will enable me to set up my own research group and collaborate with other experts. The work I am doing has the potential to change our understanding of how cancers spread."

Cancer cells shown on a screen

Cancer research

Dr Swaminathan said: "My research involves a specific type of skin cancer but one which is quite common. In the majority of cancer cases, the problem occurs once the cancer moves away from its primary site. It is then that we lose track of the cancer. This is what we call metastasis and it accounts for over 90 per cent of cancer-related deaths.

“We want to find out how this shift occurs and why. Part of my research involves using fluorescence to mark and then track cancer cells, so we can gain a better understanding of why and how they move.”

Microscope with laser light pointed at slide

He added: “When cancer spreads (known as metastasis), it does so via a process that involves enzymes (known as sialyltransferases) in the cancer cell attaching sugars to receptor proteins on the cell surface. This ‘enzyme deregulation’ changes the behaviour of the cell, making it more ‘aggressive’, meaning it is more likely to migrate.

“While we know the identity of many pathways involving receptor activation and cell adhesion regulation, how these pathways are controlled has not been worked out. That is what my research will focus on.

“To test this, we will use both genetic and cell-biology methods to selectively manipulate the expression of these enzymes (inactivate or overexpress) in vitro and investigate how it impacts melanoma attachment to extracellular matrix (a meshwork of proteins that keeps the cells in place).

"We will look at how these enzymes tune intracellular signalling upon cell adhesion, what their role is in affecting a cell’s ability to react to external stimulation (such as force), and we will develop a deep-tissue imaging model to directly track cancer cells as they are spreading.”

Dr Karthic Swaminathan looking through a microscope

Dr Swaminathan said he would be focusing on a specific type of cancer called melanoma, which affects the skin, and added any findings would be clinically translatable to develop novel therapeutics to treat metastasis.

Academy of Medical Sciences

The Academy of Medical Sciences awarded more than £6.6m in grants to early career biomedical and health researchers.

Professor James Naismith, Vice-President at the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: “Scientists face immense challenges as they begin their careers, and the Academy recognises the hurdles early career researchers must navigate as they establish themselves, which is why initiatives like Springboard are vital. Through this unique programme, we are extremely pleased to support 54 exceptional scientists with our largest-ever round of funding.

"The Academy, together with our partners, is committed to cultivating the next generation of biomedical research leaders and ensuring they have the resources and support necessary to realise their immense potential. By providing substantial financial backing and access to invaluable career development opportunities at this critical stage, we can enable talented researchers to deliver breakthroughs and innovations to improve human health."

The Springboard programme is supported by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), Wellcome, British Heart Foundation and Diabetes UK. Applications for the next Springboard round from applicants based at eligible institutions will open in spring 2024.