Erik Sahai



Dr Erik Sahai and his team at the Francis Crick Institute in London are experts in studying how cancer cells spread. To do this, they look at not just cancer cells, but all the different cell types that can be found in and around a tumour – we now know these play a vital role in aiding and abetting cancer cells and their ability to move around the body. Recently, they have published some exciting results and we are thrilled to share them with you in this update.

About 90% of cancer deaths are caused when cancer cells escape from the primary site of disease and travel to new sites within the body to form secondary tumours. Halting this process is one of the biggest challenges in treating cancer, but could reap great rewards. It is also a challenge to keep cancer that has already spread under control. But by studying how the cancer cells uproot and move, scientists hope to develop new therapies to target this process. New treatment options for people with secondary cancer are urgently needed, so work like this is vital.

In a study published in December 2015, Dr Sahai and his team discovered how cells that usually help repair wounds can switch from friend to foe – and instead escalate tumour growth and cancer spread.

We know that cells in the body are surrounded by a network called the extracellular matrix, which gives tissues like our skin their structure. During wound healing in healthy tissue, cells called fibroblasts repair damaged parts of this network. But when fibroblasts surround cancer cells, it turns out that they change the matrix in a way that encourages cancer cells to spread.

Dr Sahai has discovered that the cancer cells trick fibroblasts into producing increased amounts of a molecule called Cdc42EP3. Too much of this molecule makes fibroblasts stronger and better at changing the matrix – this in turn allows more blood vessels to feed the tumour – helping it to grow and spread.

“This exciting research reveals another way in which cancer can hijack the body’s wound healing process to help a tumour grow and spread. This work will help us to find ways to stop cancer cells tricking fibroblasts into inadvertently nurturing them, in the same way they would a wound that the body must repair.” – Dr Erik Sahai

This important work shows that cancer cells alone cannot ensure the survival of a tumour. Cancer cells recruit other types of cells, manipulate their environment, and evade our body’s natural defences to develop and grow into tumours. Our new knowledge that they are able to trick fibroblast cells, turning them from friend to foe, is a crucial step in our understanding of how cancer spreads, and importantly, it provides new avenues of research to stop the disease in its tracks.

Later this year, Dr Sahai and his team will be moving into the brand new Francis Crick Institute in London. The Francis Crick Institute brings together Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council – three of the world’s greatest funders of medical research and innovation – and the intellectual powerhouses of University College London, King’s College London, and Imperial College London, to create an unprecedented crucible of scientific talent and creativity.

By attracting scientists like Dr Sahai, along with the best scientists and clinicians from around the world, and infusing them with the Crick philosophy of collaboration and sharing, the Francis Crick Institute will become the focal point for pioneering discoveries to combat all of the major threats to human health today – cancer, ageing, metabolic disease, infection, neurodegenerative disorders and diabetes. And the Institute is perfectly placed, amongst some of the world’s most distinguished hospitals, to fulfil its commitment to turning the latest laboratory discoveries into the next generation of medical breakthroughs. We can’t wait to see what this exciting transition will help Dr Sahai and his team achieve.

Thank you for being a part of this important work, and for allowing the continued investigation of some of the deepest questions in cancer biology, helping us bring forward the day when all cancers can be cured.