If we can find ways to prevent tissue stiffening, we might stop the further development of cancer – without chemotherapy and painful surgeries.
When Pere travelled to Brussels to report on his research team's newest developments we took the opportunity to talk about how he feels about his very ambitious goal.
Dr Roca-Cusachs, in a nutshell, what is your way of fighting cancer?
Our project's idea is to understand the mechanisms behind the growth of cancer tumours and then find inhibitors to this process, and hence a possible cure. In the long run we hope to introduce new options not only for oncology therapy but also regenerative medicine and biomaterial design.
At the moment, one of the earliest ways to screen for breast cancer is to feel the breast and look for hard lumps. If you find lumps, there may be a breast tumour; this is well known. But what is the role of hardness in the formation and growth of tumours? That is what we are trying to identify, and then use this knowledge to find a new cure. The processes behind tumour progression are very complex, and so they need to be understood at many scales: from molecules to organs and all the way up to the entire organism. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we are making progress.
What have you discovered about the mechanisms that could help you reach your target?
We started with the knowledge of the role of tissue mechanics in driving tumour progression: tumour tissues are stiffer than normal healthy tissues. But also, the stiffer the tumour, the faster it grows. So if making the tumour stiffer makes it grow faster, making it softer, or preventing the response to stiffness, might make it grow slower. That would mean that if we can find ways to prevent tissue stiffening, we might stop the further development of cancer – without chemotherapy and painful surgeries.
But there is a long way between understanding processes and developing a cure, isn't there?
Of course, there is always a long way between research and a solution, but the way we follow is quite straightforward. Put simply, what you want to avoid is cells behaving in a malignant (cancer-like) way. If you know which molecules are responsible for this and how it happens, you can develop inhibitors. For example, in a side project we run, we discovered that stiffening causes one particular protein to change conformation and then bind to another protein. So we are now developing a drug to prevent this interaction, and the good news is we are already seeing that the drug does prevent malignant responses. We developed this solution because we were able to identify the mechanism behind it.
In the same way, understanding the mechanism behind stiffness-induced tumour progression (in our case in breast cancer) might provide a basis for development of inhibitors, and hence a cure for breast cancer.
What is the element of your research that strengthens your motivation to stick with it?
To me this project is not only useful and necessary, but also beautiful and inspirational in that its interdisciplinary approach strengthens our knowledge. I am a physicist by training and I got into biology because of interest and opportunity. To me, oncology is a remarkable proof of science being interdisciplinary by nature. The MECHANO-CONTROL project itself shows that one needs to combine expertise from many different disciplines to understand how things work. It takes physicists, engineers, biologists and chemists, and they are all represented in our consortium.
Your project is supported by the EU programme Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). Is interdisciplinarity something that FET helped you with?
The FET programme is one of the few that emphasize interdisciplinarity as a core value. When I wrote this proposal I was happy to see that I really did not have to force this value into our submission. It was something that I have always been calling for and MECHANO-CONTROL is founded on it. So our research fits perfectly into the concept of the FET programme.
What do you think about FET?
It is a very good programme because of its emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and because it forces you to build bridges between science and technology. That part is also of great interest and we scientists sometimes need somebody to push us to do this.
Isn't that always the goal of research?
Mostly, but not always. In every discipline work will also need to be done in basic science, and the importance of this should not be underestimated. This means that not every great piece of research is a match for FET, which is strongly focused on interdisciplinarity. In fact, the percentage of research proposals that is accepted by FET is discouragingly low, especially for some branches of the FET programme. However, from our experience of applying for FET support a number of times we can say that rejection does not always have to be a failure. In our case, the first time we proposed MECHANO-CONTROL to FET we were rejected, but we received very valuable feedback that helped us to modify the project and get it accepted the next time.
What does the project mean to you personally?
I am passionate about understanding things, figuring out how they work. That gives me more satisfaction than making money, having a high impact paper published, or receiving a prestigious award. For me, there is nothing more rewarding than fulfilling my scientific curiosity by finally understanding a previously unsolved problem. It is also the engine that moves humanity forward, and I am very proud to be part of it.