It seems an odd thing to ask at first, but at its heart is a question about the fundamentals of cellular biology. Most animals start off life as a single cell, which divides and multiplies to become a multicellular organism. So what is it that tells a fly’s cells to stop multiplying because they’ve collectively reached the appropriate size for a fly? And how is the message different in a hippo, allowing it to carry on growing until it reaches its vast mass?
These ponderings may seem abstract, but they underpin one of the key research areas in cancer biology: what makes some cells start to grow out of control? This is just one of many questions that scientists moving into the largest biomedical research institute in Europe hope to answer.
Introducing the Francis Crick Institute
Next year, the Francis Crick Institute will open its doors to researchers from across the globe, giving them a state-of-the-art environment in which to answer the fundamental questions of human biology.
By bringing together some of the leading minds from a range of disciplines, the Institute’s work will help understand why diseases develop and find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.
The aim of the Crick is to breed inter-disciplinary collaboration: researchers from different fields sharing their expertise, not to mention their lab space, to cultivate blue skies thinking and encourage new approaches to research inspired by sharing problems with colleagues from different scientific fields.
Dr Nic Tapon, senior group leader at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, is one of the scientists who’ll be moving to the Crick when it opens. He’s studying the genes and proteins that control the growth and death of the cells that make up our bodies. By studying their roles in fruit flies, he’s helping to identify the genetic mistakes that can lead to cancer.
“For the past 15 years my key interest has been growth control – trying to understand how an organism senses its size and keeps itself at the right size,” says Professor Tapon. “Life starts out as a single cell, which divides and grows into an embryo. During early development, the embryo undergoes massive growth to give rise to a child, which then grows into an adult.”
“During this growth phase, the animal has to monitor its size so it can tailor the number of cells in its body to be precisely the right size. For example, the fly isn’t the same size as a hippo and there’s a reason for that: the fly always knows what size it’s supposed to be and tries to keep to that size by having control mechanisms that stop cells from growing out of control.”
The benefits of basic research
The humble fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is usually spotted hovering around rotting fruit. But they are ideal models for human biology; they’re small, have simple needs and the genes that control their growth are almost identical to those found in humans.
The other key benefit is that fruit flies reproduce very quickly, allowing genetic traits to be followed through a number of generations in a far shorter time than with other animals. Studies in fruit flies have already yielded breakthroughs in the understanding and treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and immunity.
Labs that carry out basic research like Dr Tapon’s are the perfect breeding ground for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Many of the discoveries made in fundamental biology have wider repercussions than a single disease.
“It’s become very clear in recent years that we can’t consider cancer in isolation, explains Dr Tapon. “As an example, we know from studies in a variety of organisms that inflammation has a profound impact on your susceptibility to developing cancer. You can make the same argument for infectious diseases. So being in a multidisciplinary environment like the Crick is going to really encourage us to take a broader view of cancer research and allow us to draw from expertise in a huge number of fields.”
The Institute will also speed up the time between making the initial discovery in the lab and having a treatment that benefits patients – known as ‘bench to bedside’.
New ideas, new discoveries
The Francis Crick Institute, which sits behind London’s King’s Cross station, is named after Professor Francis Crick – the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who, with James Watson and Rosalind Franklin, discovered the double helix structure of DNA. This has proved to be one of the most important scientific milestones of all time, contributing to the genomic revolution and a new age of medicine.
The Institute’s Director is another Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse – president of the Royal Society and a former Cancer Research UK chief executive and scientist. With this rich heritage, expectations are understandably high. But these are met with boundless optimism about the unforeseeable potential of the Crick.
“The most exciting things about the Crick are the things that I can’t even tell you about because I haven’t thought about them yet,” Says Dr Tapon. “In science, you’re often thinking in a way that’s influenced by what you’ve done in the past.
“But the great thing about moving to a multidisciplinary research institute like the Crick is that we’ll be exposed to completely new ideas. I’m sure there are great discoveries that are going to be made as a result of the new institute being formed that I can’t even imagine now.”
Cancer Research UK’s Create The Change campaign aims to raise £100m towards the Francis Crick Institute, the largest biomedical research facility in Europe. Find out more here: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/support-us/donate/become-a-major-donor/how-you-can-give/create-the-change
Written By Cancer Research UK
The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.