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Cancer cells
Photo of kidney cells with an experimental cell in green and junctions on cell surface in red.

Press Release - 20 August 2008

Bath researchers study how cancer cells come unstuck

Scientists in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry at the University of Bath have started a three year study into the junctions that hold cells together, giving insight into how cancer cells can break off and spread to other parts of the body.

Cancer affects one in three people at some point in their lives, with most cancer deaths being caused by the development of secondary tumours in other parts of the body. This research, funded by leading medical charity Cancer Research UK, could help scientists better understand what causes cancer to spread and may suggest new ways it could be treated in the future.

Normal cells are held together by junctions on the cell surface, but in some cancers these junctions are lost. This makes the cancerous cells more likely to break off and spread tumours to other parts of the body. Dr Andrew Chalmers and Dr Paul Whitley, both lecturers from the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, are studying how a group of proteins called ESCRTs are involved in the loss of these junctions in kidney and intestine cells.

“ESCRTs are like the recycling units of the cell; they oversee the constant intake, break down and replenishing of junctions on the cell surface,” explained Dr Chalmers.

“In a cancer cell where ESCRTs are damaged, the junctions may not be restored properly; this can cause cells to separate and migrate to form secondary tumours in other parts of the body.

“Previous studies have shown a link between ESCRTs and the loss of junctions in cells of fruit flies, so we want to see whether this is also true in humans.”

During this three year project, the researchers plan to block ESCRTs in cells grown in the lab to see the effects on the junctions. They will also be looking at whether mutations of ESCRTs are more common in certain types of cancer.

Dr Paul Whitley added: “This work should tell us more about the role of ESCRTs in cancer and provide possible new targets for therapy in the future.”


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